As calculated as it may have been, newly-inaugurated Jakarta Governor Anies Baswaden has started off on just the wrong foot by re-igniting the religious and ethnic controversy which paved the way for his victory over Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, his ethnic Chinese-Indonesian predecessor currently serving jail time for alleged blasphemy.

In a prepared speech after he was sworn in by President Joko Widodo, the former education minister triggered a storm in the press and on social media by declaring it was time for pribumi (indigenous Indonesians) “to be the hosts in our own land.”

With his supporters unfurling a banner reading “The success of Anies-Sandi (running mate Sandiaga Uno) is a Symbol of the Rise of the Muslim Pribumi,” Baswaden, 48, who is of mixed Arabic blood, went on: “We worked hard to get rid of colonization and we must enjoy our freedom.”

“It was clearly well-calculated, although I think he was surprised at the reaction he got,” says one senior government official. “He has an ambition to be president, if not in 2019, then in 2024.”

Critics say the overall implication of his statement was that anyone who isn’t pribumi cannot call themselves Indonesian – this in a country whose national motto, effectively embodied in the Pancasila state ideology, is ‘Unity in Diversity.’

REFILE - CORRECTING STYLE A man holds a Koran as Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan stands during a swearing-in ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Beawiharta
A man holds a Koran as Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan stands during a swearing-in ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

But the logic behind the statement was also puzzling given the fact that the once-popular Purnama was the first ethnic-Chinese Christian among 18 mayors and governors who have led Jakarta dating back to the 1945 declaration of independence.

Baswaden and Uno won last April’s election with a resounding 57.9% of the vote, well ahead of the 42% polled by Purnama and then-deputy governor Djarot Hidayat; following Purnama’s conviction, Hidayat filled in as governor until the October 16 handover.

Although he alienated the poor by clearing riverbanks of slum dwellings that contributed to the city’s perennial flood problems, Purnama was a popular and effective administrator who initiated live television coverage of town hall meetings to promote transparency.

In the end, however, the blasphemy charge was enough to bring him down. It was a telling lesson that, on contentious religious issues, many Muslims march in lock-step conformity with the views of conservative clerics in neighborhood mosques.

Once regarded as an enlightened reformist, the American-educated Baswaden has been a disappointment to Muslim pluralists and minority groups for the way he has played the Islamic card to further his political ambitions.

Whether it was his intention or not, his pribumi remark appears to keep alive a strategy that Purnama’s rivals used during the Jakarta gubernatorial campaign and may employ again on a wider stage in the 2019 legislative and presidential elections.

Hardline Muslim groups protest against Jakarta's incumbent governor Basuki Purnama (Ahok), an ethnic Chinese Christian running for re-election. The sign reads: "Reject Ahok." Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta
Hardline Muslim groups protest against previous Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama who was later convicted on blasphemy charges. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Baswaden later struggled to explain that his statement should be seen in context, saying his use of the word pribumi was meant to be historical in nature and had no religious or racial connotation.

But critics asked whether the same excuse could be applied to Purnama’s reference to a verse in the Koran, conservatively interpreted as meaning Muslims should not be ruled by non-Muslims, that ultimately cost him his freedom and last April’s election.

Vice-President Jusuf Kalla came to Baswaden’s defense, saying his critics shouldn’t just isolate one word and extrapolate from there — even though a careful reading of the language shows the governor was speaking in the present tense.

But maritime coordinating minister Luhut Panjaitan, a Christian and Widodo’s chief political adviser, reminded Baswaden he should be the leader of all Jakarta citizens, not just Muslims. “There should not be pribumi or non-pribumi,” he said. “He must be governor to all ethnic groups.”

Indonesia’s political leaders, Widodo among them, continue to refer to pribumi despite then new president B J Habibie issuing a formal instruction in 1998 that the word should be avoided; the move came after bloody anti-Chinese riots that preceded ex-president Suharto’s fall from power that same year.

Indonesians of mostly Yemeni ancestry make up about five million of the 264 million-strong population, compared to an official census of 2.8 million self-identified Indonesian-Chinese, although that number is probably a lot higher.

Anies Baswedan (R), a candidate in the running to lead the Indonesian capital Jakarta, and his deputy Sandiaga Uno stand in front of their supporters during campaigning in Jakarta, Indonesia, February 5, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Picture taken February 5, 2017. Antara Foto/M Agung Rajasa/ via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. - RTSY9CX
Anies Baswedan (R), on the campaign trail in February this year. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/M Agung Rajasa/ 

Ethnic Arabs aren’t discriminated against, however, because they are invariably Muslim and do not command the same control over the national economy as the Chinese do, something that has long been a source of social friction.

Baswaden is the grandson of diplomat and freedom fighter Abdurrahman Baswaden, one of several notable Arab-Indonesians who include former foreign ministers Ali Alatas and Alwi Shihab and renowned Dutch-era painter Raden Saleh.

So-called Hadramis are also prominent in the Islamic extremist movement, among them Abu Bakar Bashir, spiritual leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network, and Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, self-exiled founder of the violent Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

What remains to be seen now is whether Baswaden continues to pander to his conservative Muslim supporters, perhaps seeing them as a way to broaden his base across the country and eventually take the same path as Widodo to the state palace.

Although he was supported by opposition leader Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and the sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) in the Jakarta election, he is still officially an independent and will need party backing to take his political career any further.

With Prabowo expected to run in 2019, Baswaden’s long-term bet would seem to be PKS. But at this point Jakartans are more likely to judge him on how he manages the capital’s 70 trillion rupiah (US$5.2 billion) annual budget and whether he fulfils his 23 campaign promises, including the creation of 200,000 new jobs.

Ironically, he stands to get some of the credit for the work done first by Widodo, during his two years as governor, and then by Purnama, in the construction of the Mass Rail Transit (MRT) and Light Rail Transit (LRT) systems, both of which come into operation in 2019.