A dear friend recently asked what I thought about the pressure building on the Governor of Jakarta over his reported comments a few weeks ago. For those unfamiliar with the story, Governor of Jakarta Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama controversially quoted a verse from the Koran, details here, that led to growing anger amongst elements of Indonesia’s population, and both he and the quote are expected to be the focus of a large protest in Jakarta later today (details here).

Protests on the streets of Jakarta come and go like the rain and are a healthy expression of democratic vibrancy, but this protest has a tension that many Indonesians have recognised and are concerned about. Those readers interested in media reports on the protest can find much better sources than me, but here is my take on the issue in a few points.

Firstly, I suspect there are elements at play here that are much older than Indonesia itself, with the familiar combination of race, economics, religion and politics fuelling the fire. On the issue of race, while attacks in Indonesia are not as common as they once were, or may yet become again, they have never really gone away. Ahok himself would be fully aware of just how destructive racial tensions can become, having lived (just) through the anti-Chinese riots of 1998. A common theme underlying many race based attacks is the perceived need to act before the other racial group attains “excessive” power, with the looming local government elections early next year in which Ahok (and by implication his Chinese associations) is expected to perform well being a highly relevant backdrop.

Secondly,  I suspect Chinese Indonesians continue to be considered “guilty” of doing economically well at the expense of other larger demographic groupings. While I have no figures to offer clarity on the reality, I don’t think the reality matters anywhere near as much as the perception, and the percerption is that the Chinese are doing better than other ethnicities and will, with Ahok’s continued political ascendancy and patronage, soon do better still. Former Presidential candidate Prabowo’s vicarious public request a few months ago on social media that Indonesia’s Chinese should manage their power and authority approriately fell on fertile political soil and can be seen in this context.

This leads to my third point, namely that Ahok’s popularity among Jakarta’s middle class, reinforced by adopting policies popular with this group such as demolishing informal settlements, clearing unattractive areas and addressing traffic congestion, have had a significant detrimental impact on a large number of Jakarta’s poor. I suspect these poor constituents no longer believe they have a voice in Jakarta’s politics either now or for the foreseeable future, with this political powerlessness fuelling their sense of grievance. Online commentary that Ahok is doing so well on the metrics that matter to the middle class, such as those described here, mean little for the possibly near 20,000 people that Ahok has made homeless in his drive to clean up the city. Exploiting the age-old middle class fear of the poor, Asok may even be quietly pleased with this rally fostering the sense that the poor are dangerous and he stands against them with his middle class supporters. This position certainly aligns with the acompanying media rhetoric that, because the values of the poor are so easily bought, they are merely protesting for payment and their concerns can be delegitimised.

A final point here is that the protest is also undoubtedly a stage for an internal contest between Indonesia’s Muslim groups on the role and extent of Islam in public life. A key antagonist in this fight is the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group with a long history of provocative actions, such as attacking businesses considered to be acting in an un-Islamic way, and whose political activism stretches back beyond anger at former President Megawati’s election on the basis of her unsuitable gender. FPI has been increasingly successful at exploiting political space vacated by Indonesia’s heavyweight Islamic Organisations, such as Nahdatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, and on this issue FPI have struck a particularly rich vein of political discontent and a growing power vacuum. NU effectively failed its membership in not meaningfully speaking up for the thousands of evictees in one of its traditional heartlands, and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), boasting former local hero and now President, Jokowi, now overtly supports Asok (see here).

There are however two ways to see these developments. The darker side is that the accusation of being too friendly to Chinese is gaining potency in Jakarta, and the rally reflects accumulating allegiances based on frightening anti-Chinese intentions and other anti-democratic tendancies. For Chinese Indonesians in Jakarta and beyond this has deeply disturbing echoes of the the past, reflected in this movin first person account here from a Chinese Indonesian of their feelings that day. The other is that protest’s core message around Islamic solidarity may also be simply a form of local community unity under a convenient banner unrepresentative of the primary grevance/s – quite literally perhaps, with FPI giving communities affected by evictions a number of these banners at no cost.

I lack the insight to predict what comes next, but before concluding I would like to step back and look at the broader picture through two quick points.

One is to ask again why this anti-Chinese sentiment, and a willingness for the political class to walk away from support for a large segment of Jakarta’s society, might have re-emerged? My response is that it may never have gone away, with the episodic nature of such sentiments captured here. 1998 was 18 years ago, which perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not is the approximate timeframe for a new generation to emerge that never experienced those horrors or lessons.

The other is to consider the protest in the context of state weakness. The literature suggests that state weaknesses emerges when political boundaries don’t align with ethnic groupings. This particular protest or issue may or may not morph into a more serious political fracture, but it does point to long term work being required to align Jakarta’s political representation with its constituent groupings before this problem becomes chronic, the divisions become increasingly irreconcilable and the protests morph into something far nastier.

Update: A couple of subsequent posts that complement the above analysis and/or provide an alternative interpretation can be found here and here. The greatly respected Sidney Jones also argues here that the underlying cause is weak political leadership in confronting religious extremism, while another interpretation here suggests that resistance to Ahok stems from his efforts “…relocating hawker stalls and street vendors into properly run and policed centres such as Tanah Abang [thus] effectively targeting the revenue stream of Preman groups such as the FPI and corrupt officials in local government”.