Jokowi begins clampdown on critics in Indonesia, but will it backfire?

By: Euan Black - Posted on: July 20, 2017 | Current Affairs

After his close ally lost the bitterly contested Jakarta election, president Joko Widodo is clearing the path for his re-election bid, starting by disbanding a prominent Islamic group

Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo waits for delegates at the Indian Ocean Rim Association summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, 07 March 2017. Photo: EPA/Mick Tsikas

Islamic groups in Indonesia joined forces with Indonesia’s old political guard in an April election to unseat Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as ‘Ahok’, the incumbent governor of Jakarta and a close ally of President Joko Widodo.

With Ahok imprisoned days after the election on a blasphemy charge, the president, known widely as Jokowi, initially called for calm. But his counter offensive now appears to be well underway.

The Indonesian government officially disbanded the pan-Islamic organisation Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) on Wednesday, fulfilling a promise it made in May in response to the group’s role in organising the racially charged protests against Ahok.

The groups’s dissolution came just ten days after Jokowi issued a controversial decree that amended a 2013 law to give officials unfettered power to disband organisations deemed to threaten national unity. Human Rights Watch described the move as “draconian”. The Australian intelligence services warned that it would drive organisations underground and make it more difficult to monitor radicalisation.

While the government maintains that it disbanded the group because its caliphal aspirations ran counter to the country’s founding ideology of unity, called Pancasila, some believe the decision was driven more by Jokowi’s desire to quash his critics in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2019.

“I think Jokowi’s government worry that what happened to Ahok could happen to him in the next [presidential] elections in 2019,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice chairperson of the Jakarta-based Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace.

Ahok, Jakarta’s first openly ethnically Chinese and Christian governor, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in May after he was found guilty of blaspheming the qur’an, a crime he allegedly committed while delivering a speech last September.

The former governor came under fire when a doctored video of that speech circulated on the internet showing Ahok warning voters not to be deceived by politicians who say Muslims cannot be led by non-Muslims. The public backlash was fierce. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets on numerous occasions in the months before his election loss to Anies Baswedan, the former minister of education and culture backed by entrenched political interests.

Like Baswedan, HTI has links with Prabowo Subianto and the ‘New Order’, Indonesia’s old guard of politicians who trace their lineage back to the country’s former dictator Suharto.

While HTI’s associations with such antagonistic political forces were undoubtedly “part of the calculation made by Jokowi and those advising him on the ban”, the move should also be seen as a way for the president to shore up his support among the country’s mainstream Islamic organisations, according to Thomas Power, a researcher focusing on Indonesian politics at Australian National University.

“It may be more accurate to see HTI’s disbandment in terms of Jokowi’s efforts to forge a stronger alliance with Indonesia’s largest ‘mainstream’ Islamic organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama, in the lead-up the 2019,” he said.

“Beyond the battle between Jokowi and his Islamist critics and opponents, it is worth appreciating that this ban is reflective of longstanding tensions between mainstream Islamic organisations and those on the ideological and peripheries. However, it’s worth noting that the other major mainstream organisation, Muhammadiyah, has been far less enthusiastic about HTI’s disbandment.”

While Jokowi’s decree removed the legal checks against the executive’s power to dissolve political groups, it maintained the right to appeal such decisions, one that HTI has said it will exercise in due course.

Consequently, Jokowi can likely expect to be drawn into a “long and contentious legal battle” that, regardless of the outcome, could negatively affect his re-election campaign, said Power.

“If the constitutional court overturned the perppu [decree], it would allow groups like HTI to return to the forefront of an anti-Jokowi campaign in the months leading up to his re-election bid,” he said.

“On the other hand, if the perppu stands, it should alienate some of the more progressive elements of Jokowi’s 2014 coalition who supported him as the alternative to a potentially authoritarian candidate in Prabowo. Either way, this has further damaged Jokowi’s democratic credibility.”