JAKARTA (Reuters) - As a few hundred protesters held a rally outside his home in an upscale Jakarta neighbourhood this week, Indonesia’s former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took to twitter to vent his displeasure.
“I ask the president, the police chief, do I not have the right to live in my own country, with the human rights that I am entitled to?,” he wrote. “I’m just asking for justice.”
Critics lampooned the melodramatic tone of Yudhoyono, whose son Agus Yudhoyono is a candidate in the Feb. 15 election for Jakarta governor.
But the former president’s disquiet, in some ways, is understandable. Yudhoyono and his son are being assailed on multiple fronts in the midst of the most divisive, hard-fought election in Indonesia’s short history as a democracy.
Rather than a contest about who will administer Jakarta, the election has emerged as a proxy fight ahead of Indonesia’s presidential elections in 2019. At its heart is a bitter battle between Yudhoyono and his successor Joko Widodo, complete with claims of wiretapping and an alleged treason plot.
The sudden prominence of fringe, hardline Muslim groups during the campaign has also raised questions about whether they are being used as political pawns and destabilising Indonesia, a secular nation with the world’s largest Muslim population, often exemplified as a model of religious pluralism.
And Widodo, say insiders, has been distracted from his reform agenda for an economy that, while rich in resources, has lagged behind its neighbours for decades, hindered by poor infrastructure, low education standards and rampant corruption.
”Frankly, right now, policy making is at a standstill,“ said a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that ”the president’s attention is, understandably, overly distracted by local politics.”
The President is backing his political ally and the incumbent governor in the Jakarta election, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (commonly known by his nickname “Ahok”).
Purnama, a Christian, is in the extraordinary situation of campaigning while he is on trial for blasphemy, making weekly court appearances to defend himself against charges he insulted the Koran.
The perceived slights against Islam’s sacred text sparked two huge rallies late last year led by Habib Rizieq, the head of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a vigilante group best known for raiding bars, which until last year had been on the margins of Indonesian politics.
Widodo suggested “political actors” were behind the mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of aggrieved Muslims demanding Purnama’s imprisonment.
On the morning of the second rally in December, police arrested 11 people in relation to a treasonous plot to direct the masses to occupy parliament and demand the impeachment of the president.
Widodo has not expanded on, or repeated, his comments about “political actors”. Many - including Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono himself - believe the remarks were directed at the former president and his son’s campaign team.
In an interview, Jakarta’s police chief Mochamad Iriawan said investigations into the plot had so far uncovered no evidence directly linking Yudhoyono or his son to the protests.
Yudhoyono’s spokesman Amir Syamsuddin told Reuters any members of his Democrat Party or religious support group who joined the rallies did so in a private capacity.
Last week, Yudhoyono said he believed his phone was “wiretapped” by government agencies, comparing the surveillance to the Watergate scandal. Yudhoyono was responding to claims he had urged a senior cleric to declare Purnama a blasphemer, an edict that led to the Jakarta governor’s trial.
Widodo denied the charge.
Yudhoyono’s woes have been compounded by revelations this week that the former chairman of his political party will talk to anti-graft authorities, who are investigating bid-rigging and kickbacks during the construction of a sports complex.
The probe - which has implicated Yudhoyono’s youngest son Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono - is one of at least three ongoing anti-graft probes targeting the Yudhoyono government.
Then there is the surprise release from jail of former anti-corruption chief, Antasari Azhar, who claims he was framed for murder to derail an investigation into voting fraud during the 2009 presidential election Yudhoyono won.
Antasari has met with Widodo, made a round of media appearances and attended one of the debates for the Jakarta election.
Over the past month, Purnama has staged a remarkable recovery in the election campaign. When he was buffeted by the blasphemy allegations and Jakarta convulsed by mass protests, his poll ratings plummeted and Agus Yudhoyono emerged as the frontrunner.
Recent surveys of voter sentiment, however, show him moving ahead of Yudhoyono and a third candidate, former education minister Anies Baswedan.
Widodo has also seized the initiative on handling the Islamic-led protests that have rocked the capital.
Police say they will block a third protest rally planned for Saturday in Jakarta. It was being organised in part by the FPI’s Rizieq, who himself is now facing multiple police investigations over complaints he insulted the state ideology Pancasila and state symbols.
Additional reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor and John Chalmers; Editing by Bill Tarrant