Ahok had quoted the Quran in a bid to persuade voters to elect the next governor based on policy rather than religion.
Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, informally known as Ahok, was once a force to be reckoned with in Indonesian politics. Appointed by current President Joko Widodo, Ahok was the first governor of Chinese ancestry and Jakarta’s second Christian governor in the Muslim-majority nation.
His legacy boasts improvements in traffic congestion and corruption, as well as achieving a minimum wage increase. And in this year’s pre-election polls Ahok’s voter satisfaction rate stood at over 70%. But fast-forward a matter of months and Ahok would be spending his 51st birthday behind bars, sentenced to two years imprisonment for religious ‘blasphemy’ on May 9.
So how did a governor who had the majority of citizens satisfied, lose out on an election and end up in prison?
While there were legitimate reasons to oppose Ahok, such as his forced eviction policies to relocate the poor due to flooding and congestion, identity politics and religion were central to his political downfall. His arrest came after comments he made last September erupted in a social media storm. Ahok had quoted the Quran in a bid to persuade voters to elect the next governor based on policy rather than religion. In his speech he claimed it was plausible that voters could be “threatened and deceived” by some groups using Verse 51 of Al Maidah and variations of it”. This verse had been used previously by some groups to convince citizens to oppose the Chinese Christian governor.
A short, edited excerpt of Ahok’s speech went viral on social media, ultimately leading to the ex-governor’s arrest. Yet only 13 percent of the 45 per cent of respondents who thought Ahok was guilty of blasphemy report having watched the excerpt. And so it was fake news and sensationalism that rose to the forefront of Ahok’s public narrative.
While President Trump made “fake news” a buzzword in the US elections, the era post-truth permeated Jakarta’s elections. Through WhatsApp and social media platforms, the short excerpt of Ahok’s speech caught fire on social media, taking the nuisance out of the longer version of his statement.
As Ahok told Al Jazeera, “What was spread on Whatsapp groups was only thirteen seconds. Of course the information on those thirteen seconds was different than what I said in 6000 seconds.”
Fake news continues to threaten politicians, in fact this post-truth vacuum has seen President Jokowi labelled a communist on social media. “Many “fakenews” portal sprung heading to the election. The radical groups also had an organized MCS (Muslim Cyber Army) which inundated social media with accusations as well as hoax news. These continue to present a threat against the president as well,” says Mr Basuki.
In the lead up to the 2017 governor elections, Ahok’s blasphemy claims were used in what some may call a bout of political opportunism by his opponents. The Islamic Defence Front (FPI) aggressively denounced Ahok, the group containing an estimated five million members and being in support of sharia law. The founder of the FPI, Habib Rizieq, led an Anti-Ahok campaign with unrivalled vitriol, encouraging hundreds of protesters to line the streets during the trial.
Ahok’s lawyer claimed that 12 witnesses linked to Rizieq’s FPI appeared in Ahok’s trial, with the final judgment condemned by the United Nations and Amnesty International.
“It was rather a well-constructed narrative built by Ahok’s political opponents that stitched together all reasons to vote against the well-performing governor. Ahok’s main political opponents prior to the election were those politicians whose corrupt practices had been hindered or curbed,” says Tobias Basuki, researcher at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.
“Leading into the election, all disparate dissatisfaction was bundled together – non-Muslim as leaders, blasphemy, eviction policies, crudeness – to attack the then-governor,” Mr Basuki told Renegade Inc.
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