Indonesia’s elections reveal a nation at the crossroads between pluralism and intolerance

When the official results confirming the re-election of Joko Widodo as President of Indonesia were announced on 21 May, supporters of his rival, former General Prabowo Subianto, took to the streets. Riots led to carnage in the capital, Jakarta, with at least six people dead. The divisions unleashed by the election campaign were exposed in their ugliest form.

Until that point, Indonesia’s elections had been peaceful and orderly, despite what almost all observers describe as the most divisive campaign in the country’s recent history. On 17 April, over 190 million people cast their votes for the presidency and the national, regional and local legislatures, in one of the world’s biggest and most complex democratic exercises in recent times. To conduct such a poll, in the world’s third largest democracy and fourth most populous nation, across the world’s largest archipelago of 17,508 islands stretching from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans, is a significant feat.

I spent three weeks in Indonesia during the election period. I witnessed the final week of the campaign, election day itself, and the first twelve days after the elections. I travelled to four cities – Jakarta, Medan in North Sumatra, Surabaya in East Java, and Pontianak in West Kalimantan – where I met civil society activists, religious communities and government advisers. I left Indonesia with profoundly mixed feelings.

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Will the Surabaya church bombings serve as a wake-up call for Indonesia ahead of next year’s presidential elections?

Santa Maria
Santa Maria Tak Bercela Catholic Church, Surabaya

Father Aloysius Widyawan opened the door of an upstairs room in the Santa Maria Tak Bercela Catholic Church. “Three months ago, this room was completely filled with blood, body parts, teeth, even the faces of the bombers, strewn by the force of the blast,” he told me.

He pointed out windows that had been blown out, and the icons of St Luke and St John, damaged but not destroyed. He told me about the two young Catholic boys, Evan and Nathan, aged 12 and eight, who died as a result of their injuries. They had been baptized only two years before and had just received their first Communion. He described the Muslim security guard who lost both eyes and legs in the explosion, and later told the priest: “Please forgive me because I was not able to protect the church and the people, and am unable to work again.” Six people were killed and more than 30 injured in that one church alone.

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Ahok’s Case: Indonesia’s Pluralism is still in Peril

UPDATE: In May 2017, Ahok was sentenced to two years imprisonment on blasphemy charges. Click here to read more. 

Three years ago today, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) published one of its most important reports in recent times: Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril – The rise of religious intolerance across the archipelago. The report accomplished three things: it illustrated that religious intolerance in Indonesia is now a nationwide phenomenon, contrary to popular myth, and is not confined to particular parts of the archipelago; it demonstrated that it affects everyone, of all religions – Christian churches are closed down or attacked, Ahmadiyya Muslim mosques and homes burned, Shi’as displaced, Buddhist temples targeted and Confucianists vulnerable, as well as pluralistic-minded Sunnis, and atheists; and it proved that the last President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was responsible for giving the radical Islamists the green light and fuelling the erosion in the values of the ‘Pancasila’, Indonesia’s state philosophy that protects freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) for all six recognised religions.

Three years on, what has changed?

Continue reading “Ahok’s Case: Indonesia’s Pluralism is still in Peril”