29 November 2017 By Publikasi IIS

Viewing the Case of “Ahok vs Conservative Islamic Groups” through The Lense of Agonistic Democracy

Viewing the Case of “Ahok vs Conservative Islamic Groups” through The Lense of Agonistic Democracy

 Issue 07 | November 2017

Indonesia had been the world’s center of attention during the tumultuous process of Jakarta’s Governor election. The election was called as “the dirtiest, most polarising and most divisive” election ever, in which Anies Baswedan defeated the incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok (The Jakarta Post, 2017). The victory of Anies-Sandi who were backed by the right Islamic Parties such as PKS, PPP, and radical Islamic Group FPI, was seen as a sign that Indonesia has sacrificed its moderation and pluralism for radical Islamic groups. New York Times published that Indonesia, which was long applauded for its success in keeping the tolerance and pluralism between religious groups, was backsliding (The New York Times, 2017).

Anies-Sandi’s religious-driven strategy and propaganda during the campaign were believed by the grassroots. This is only another sign that the pluralism was failing (Tempo.co, 2017). The tension felt during the election process was definitely bigger than the last four presidential election process. The election spread to so many political agendas and politicization of identity and religion. Aksi Bela Islam 411 and 212 which demanded to send Ahok to trial for Blasphemy, was seen as a religion politicization to mobilize people, in order to gain support for Anies Baswedan. In the end, Ahok was found guilty and sentenced to two years in jail. Ahok’s guilty verdict increasingly raised the concern of many, regarding Indonesia’s democracy. Amnesty International has spoken against it, they even stated that the verdict tarnished Indonesia’s reputation as a tolerant nation (Tempo.co, 2017).

As a response for the heating political situation, Joko Widodo gave a controversial statement that Indonesia’s democracy has stepped out of line, it opened a chance for extreme political articulation such as liberalism, radicalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, terrorism, and other ideas opposing Pancasila. According to him, law enforcement is a fair key to stop the democracy for going too far (Ihsanuddin, 2017). The statement then leads to many questions. Has Indonesia’s democracy really gone too far? Even if it has, to what extent democracy can be categorized as ideal?

Democracy is fluid and dynamic, it is not static and can’t be treated as one rigid body of work. Just because contestation, conflicts, and confrontations happen between various groups does not mean that Indonesia’s democracy has de-consolidated, because democracy is supposed to provide a space for various kinds of ideologies, ideas, moralities, as well as identities. Spaces for difference are to be established through the play of political contestation. The president seems to follow the deliberative democrats, in which he believes in consensual decisions, collective identities, and universality. Unity is also seen as a common good, thus, the conflictual relations between like Ahok and Conservative Islamic Groups is seen as a disturbance of it. We can see it in his policy to ban Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a conservative Islamic Group in the name of keeping unity intact (al-Jazeera, 2017). Instead of digging deliberative democracy, through this writing, I would like to offer a different perspective in seeing Ahok vs Conservative Islamic Groups phenomenon by using Chantal Mouffe’s concept of Agonistic Democracy.

Chantal Mouffe hugely criticizes Habermas’ idea of deliberative democracy by bringing the concept of agonistic democracy or agonistic pluralism. Mouffe also criticized Habermas for putting consensus on a high pedestal in his ideas. Habermas’ deliberative democracy might be the most famous concept to be used to analyze democracy in the world, but Mouffe herself believed that deliberative democracy is an unfinished concept and counterproductive, given to its close relation to liberalism (C. Mouffe, 2000). In the concept of agonistic pluralism, the key of harmony is not consensus nor unity. The key is the transformation of antagonistic power and social relations into agonistic relations (Harvey, 2012). Excluding any groups is not an option, fostering diversity is more important because, in the most basic form, differences and diversity are natural, so does the “us versus they” narratives. What differs agonistic relation from the antagonistic relation is how we position the “us” and the “they” (Harvey, 2012). In the antagonistic relation, enemy images will be created to attack the “they”, so confrontation will tend to always end in exclusion and coercion. Meanwhile, in agonistic relation, the “they” will be seen as adversary, “they” coexist with “us”, “they” will always be different, but when “they” differs and stands by their own causes, “us” will not attack, “us” will embrace the difference and stays coexisting, even cooperating with the adversary (C. Mouffe, 2009).

Indonesia is a home for pluralism, differences and diversity exist by nature. The narrative of “us” versus “they” is inevitable. We can also see it in the case of Ahok versus Conservative Islamic Groups.  Conservative Islamic Groups as the majority position themselves as “us”, meanwhile Ahok is positioned as the “them” in this narrative. Now, if we see the relation between the two groups, we can say that both are working as adversaries in an agonistic relation. Both groups might be in a battle to reach the same victory as Jakarta’s Governor, but they are walking under what Mouffe called “shared symbolic space”. Shared symbolic space refers to a room for passionate expression of differences and disagreements between citizens (Harvey, 2012). In this case, we can see a shared symbolic space in Jakarta’s Governor Election Process, especially the campaign. It is a room used by both groups to articulate their voices.

Both groups held fair campaigns, even the infamous Aksi Bela Islam 411 demonstration is considered legal under UUD 1945 Article 28, and UU No. 9 Tahun 1998. There were no laws being broken by either side. The demonstrations itself were relatively non-violent, there were no clashes between the two groups, for the demonstrations was a non-violent action to demand justice for Ahok and the blasphemy case. The demonstrators even held Jamaah Prayer in Istiqlal Mosque as well as the National Monument, which was later joined by the President as well as Anies Baswedan and Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, the candidates (Rahadian, 2017). Meanwhile, Ahok’s supporter as the opposite group used a different campaigning method. Several legendary musicians such as Slank, Tompi, Sandhy Sandoro, Once and others held a concert called “Konser Gue Dua” to show supports for Ahok as well as campaigning (Choiri, 2017).

Now, we can see that both groups successfully and lawfully participated in a non-violent campaign process. Both groups also walked on two different sides of magnets when it comes to campaign propaganda. Anies Baswedan’s side which mainly consisted of conservative Islamic groups emphasized on how in Islam, it is forbidden to vote for a non-Moslem leader. It is clear to see that the propaganda was addressed to destroy Ahok’s votes from Moslem voters. Ahok’s side responded to their opponent’s propaganda by bringing up pluralism, past achievements as an incumbent, and “Jakarta for everyone” as three key phrases that can be found in their campaign strategy.

In the end, both groups proved that even with clashing principles, campaigns could still be held peacefully and fairly. They both worked as adversaries by only focusing on the messages that they wanted to deliver to the voters. Finally, When the western media saw the victory of Anies Baswedan from Conservative Islamic Groups as a sign that Indonesian democracy and pluralism is backsliding, I say that Indonesian democracy, in fact, is healthy and productive, if we refer to Mouffe’s Agonistic Democracy, which emphasize in the fostering of diversity through the agonistic relation in the “us” versus “they” narrative.

Given of its diverse nature, I believe that Jokowi should see the case of Ahok vs Conservative Islamic Groups through the lens of Agonistic Democracy, instead of deliberative democracy. If we see through the lens of deliberative democracy, the recent election will appear as if Indonesian democracy is backsliding. Because in the eye of deliberative democrats, the different groups of people are expected to bury deep their own egos and ideas, then only bring up a universal moral idea to the surface. Thus, it will be as if a consensus has been made. Even though what actually happens is the burial of the contestation of ideas which ideally, if fostered properly, could bring a constructive dynamic to democracy. The banning of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia is an effort to preserve the forced consensus because judging from Ahok versus Conservative Islamic Groups contestation in Jakarta’s Governor Election, Jokowi believed that the consensus and unity preconditioned in democracy started to fade.

In conclusion, I believe that Jokowi needs to change his policy direction in managing Indonesian democracy. The government’s homework is not to think the way to uniform the people or unite the all the different ideas, morals, and identities. Excluding certain groups from the politics in order to repair the forced collective consensus will not make things any better. It is now the time to foster the diversity and differences so that the already agonistic relations between different groups could remain that way.

Zahrina Faudia Azziza
Undergraduate Student at Department of International Relations,
Universitas Gadjah Mada


The opinions expressed in IIS Brief do not necessarily represent the official policy of the Institute of International Studies