Conservative Muslims rally in Indonesia amid tight security

President rejects end to direct votes, relaxing term limit

JAKARTA: Thousands of Indonesian Muslims from conservative groups held a peaceful rally in central Jakarta yesterday, with a spokesman for one of the organizers calling for unity after a spike in religious tension followed elections last April. Among the protest organizers was the Alumni 212 movement, which was behind big rallies held from 2016 to demand action against Jakarta’s former governor, a Christian eventually jailed for blasphemy in a case that drew international condemnation.

The crowd, many wearing white and carrying Islamic flags, began gathering for prayers at Jakarta’s National Monument from about 3 am, as more than 6,000 security forces, including police and military, stood on guard. “The main message of this reunion is that Indonesia needs unity that can forget differences and friction that happened some time ago,” said Haikal Hassan, a spokesman for Alumni 212, which takes its name from an earlier Dec 2 protest.

However, authorities were unfairly targeting some clerics, he said by telephone. “We want Indonesia to progress with justice. And we feel that there’s injustice,” Hassan added. The bloc of conservative Muslims also overwhelmingly backed an opposition challenge to President Joko Widodo in April’s vote, fuelling concerns over a deepening religious divide in the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country.

Habib Rizieq, the leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI), urged vigilance against future blasphemy cases in a speech by live video link from Saudi Arabia, where he has lived since 2017, after being named a suspect in several legal cases. More than 12,000 people participated in the rally, said Jakarta police spokesman Yusri Yunus, although organizers put the figure much higher. Security analyst Stanislaus Riyanta said a decision by former opposition leader Prabowo Subianto, whom Widodo defeated in April’s poll, to join the cabinet as defense minister appeared to have undermined the 212 movement.

“The 212 reunion this time is weaker than the previous ones because it has lost some political momentum,” added the Jakarta-based Riyanta. Prabowo, a former general, who had addressed a similar rally a year ago, did not attend this time. The movement’s spokesman, Hassan, did not say how it would line up in future politically. “We can’t give directions yet, because we don’t know where our politics is going,” he said.

Meanwhile, Indonesian President Joko Widodo rejected yesterday proposals by some politicians and a Muslim group to amend the constitution to end direct elections for the presidency and relax term limits in the world’s third-biggest democracy. Widodo, who won a second five-year term in April, his last under current rules, said in a Twitter message his “position was clear in disagreeing with a three-term presidency”. Separately, he told reporters that discussions on the amendment had referred to plans for an eight-year, one-term presidency or three terms of up to 15 years in total. “It’s better not to amend,” he said.

Indonesian activists have warned the proposals would mark a setback for democracy, restored after the 1998 overthrow of dictator Suharto, who had ruled for more than 30 years. Some politicians, including from Widodo’s own party, the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), and coalition partners, have called for the reinstatement of a Suharto-era set of national development goals known as the Broad Guidelines of State Policy.

Under the Broad Guidelines, a People’s Consultative Assembly, or MPR – then stacked with army officials and Suharto supporters – picked the president. “I’m a product of the post-reform constitution,” Widodo also said in his tweet. The former furniture salesman and small town mayor is the first Indonesian president from outside the country’s political and military elite. Since the return to democracy, the constitution has been amended four times, to separate legislative and executive powers, decentralize the government, directly elect presidents and limit leaders to two terms.

Hendrawan Supratikno, a PDI-P lawmaker, said his party rejects the idea of ending direct election of the president, but is in favour of reinstating the Broad Guidelines. Last week, Indonesia’s largest mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) suggested the idea of having the MPR elect the president, according to its website. Titi Anggraini, executive director of the Association for Elections and Democracy, welcomed Widodo’s rejection, saying the proposals had not been explained properly to the public. “The president should make sure that these coalition parties are in line with his stance,” Anggraini said. “This could be a solidity test on Widodo’s political attitude.” – Reuters