Indonesian President Joko Widodo lashed out at politicians for stoking a huge protest by Muslims that briefly turned violent on Friday night as a hardcore group pressed for the resignation of Jakarta’s governor, a Christian they say insulted the Koran.
The first ethnic Chinese politician to lead this sprawling city of 10 million, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is standing for re-election in February, competing with two Muslims for the job.
The governorship of the capital is a powerful position and it was a stepping stone for Joko Widodo to the presidency of the country two years ago.
Watch: Jakarta rally turns violent
At a news conference held in the early hours of Saturday, Widodo called for calm and took a swipe at politicians – whom he didn’t name – for whipping up die-hard demonstrators after most had already gone home.
“ … we deplore the incident after the Isha prayers, when should have already disbanded but became violent. And, we see this was steered by political actors who were exploiting the situation,” Widodo said.
The Indonesian leader also cancelled his three-day visit to Australia in light of the protests. He was scheduled to address the Australian parliament on Monday.
Police fired tear gas and water cannon to subdue a restive crowd that police said swelled to about 150,000 after Friday prayers as they congregated around the presidential palace.
Some protesters threw rocks at the police, two vehicles were torched and a fire broke out near the city’s National Monument, but by the evening the demonstration was fizzling out.
However, in a northern neighbourhood of the city there was a late-night clash between police and a few dozen protesters, and social media reports showed a convenience store being looted.
And hundreds camped out until around 4 a.m. beside the parliament building to demand Purnama be charged for blasphemy.
A police spokesman said one person died and 12 were hurt. Local media said about 23 people were arrested, most of them in the north, where overnight police guarded shopping and residential areas that are home to predominantly non-Muslims.
About a dozen Muslim groups have accused Purnama of insulting Islam after he jokingly said his opponents had used a verse from the Koran to deceive voters. The verse implies that Muslims should not choose non-Muslims as leaders.
Chanting “God is greatest”, many in Friday’s protest waved placards calling for Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, to be jailed for blasphemy. A white banner hung at an overpass was painted with red letters that read “Hang Ahok here”.
Police are investigating the case against Purnama, who has apologised for his remarks, insisting he was not criticising the Koranic verse but those who used it to attack him.
Purnama has a reputation as a no-nonsense reformer with little patience for the corruption widely blamed for the chaos and dilapidated infrastructure of an overcrowded city.
He remains popular despite efforts by Muslim groups to vilify him and is seen as the frontrunner in the election, though many voters are angry with him for evicting large numbers from slums to modernise Jakarta.
Widodo, a Muslim, has vowed not to interfere in any legal proceedings against Purnama, according to media reports. But he said at his news conference that any legal process involving Purnama would be executed “swiftly, firmly and transparently”.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, but most follow a moderate form of Islam and protests on such a large scale are rare.
Ethnic Chinese make up just over 1 per cent of Indonesia’s 250 million people, and they typically do not enter politics.
Indonesian Chinese have faced persecution and violence in the past, especially during the political and social turmoil that gripped Jakarta when former strongman Suharto was toppled.
Critics say Widodo’s government failed to quell tensions in the run-up to Friday’s protest.
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