Widodo Appeals for Calm at Second Jakarta Protest Against Ally

  • Police arrest about 10 activists for questioning: spokesman
  • Capital’s governor accused of blasphemy over Koran comments

Indonesian President Joko Widodo sought to ease tension in the world’s most populous Muslim nation by appearing at a rally of more than 150,000 people seeking to jail Jakarta’s Christian governor, an ally of his, over blasphemy allegations.

The president, also known as Jokowi, along with his deputy Jusuf Kalla, joined the mass gathering for Friday prayers around the National Monument in Jakarta and appealed for calm. The police detained about 10 activists ahead of the protest, including eight on alleged treason charges, Rikwanto, a national police spokesman, said in a televised address.

Protesters gather at the National Monument in Jakarta on Dec. 2.

Photographer: Tatan Syuflana/AP Photo

Widodo’s surprise appearance at the rally signaled a willingness to challenge conservative Muslim groups ahead of the governor’s election in February. Authorities deployed 22,000 soldiers and police to keep order after a similar protest last month turned violent. Foreign embassies including the U.S. had warned of the potential for extremists to use the demonstration as cover to incite violence.

“It actually makes Jokowi look more like the quiet, strong leader that everyone was hoping he would be,” said Greg Barton, research professor in global Islamic politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute in Melbourne. “By actually coming out on the front foot this time, privately shoring up support and publicly coming out and putting it on display, I think it actually strengthens his presidency.”

Koranic Verses

Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a political ally of the president and who is locked in a three-way battle to retain his governorship, has been accused of blasphemy for comments in which he warned that voters were being deceived by people trying to use Koranic verses to say that Muslims were not permitted to support a Christian leader. Authorities confirmed this week that the case would proceed to trial, possibly within weeks.

Purnama, known as Ahok, who has denied the charges, faces up to five years in prison if convicted under Indonesia’s blasphemy laws. Authorities have so far resisted calls to arrest him, although he has been banned from leaving the country. Observers have warned that the case risks emboldening extremists in Indonesia, which prides itself on its secularism, as well as being the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.

A live broadcast of the rally on TVOne showed protesters occupying the square at the National Monument as well as a roundabout near the monument and the central bank, some chanting, "Arrest, arrest, arrest Ahok.”

After prayers, Widodo told the crowd: “Let’s all now go home peacefully!” and shouted “God is great!” three times. While some responded “Arrest Ahok now!” much of the crowd soon dispersed.

Governor Election

Purnama, 50, became Jakarta governor in 2014 after Widodo, the city’s previous leader, won the presidency.

Widodo, who has blamed unnamed “political actors” for the unrest, has been trying to limit damage since the scandal brought more than 100,000 people to the streets for a Nov. 4 protest. He’s made several public appearances with senior officials from the military, police and other party chiefs in recent weeks to show he’s still in charge.

People protest in Jakarta on Nov. 4.

Photographer: Ed Wray/Getty Images

Until the blasphemy case erupted, Purnama was the front-runner in a three-way race with Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the son of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and former education minister Anies Baswedan, a protege of Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi’s 2014 presidential rival. The latest opinion now polls show Ahok trailing.

“It may all be too late for Ahok,” Barton said. “His polling is way down and it’s quite possible the damage is done and he won’t recover.”

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