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The foreign and domestic implications of Indonesia's VP nominations

Image credit: Pemerintah Provinsi DKI Jakarta (Provincial Government of Jakarta)

In presidential elections, it is common for campaign strategy to determine who is leader and deputy. But in Indonesia, underlying party factionalism and vote pandering are especially pronounced.

On 9 August, candidates for the 2019 Presidential National Election, President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, registered their Vice President (VP) running mates. In an election featuring a 2014 rematch as the only confirmed contenders, VP selections reveal something about their approaches to managing sectarianism and public opinion.

To the surprise of many, Jokowi has chosen Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin, Chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and spiritual leader for Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation. Ma’fud has trumped other more likely political figures. For example, as former Constitutional Court Chief Justice and Ministerial politician, Mahfud MD was well primed for the VP nomination. Instead, team Jokowi has made a strong move to convene mainstream religious authority.

Similarly, Prabowo has made a somewhat surprising choice with Jakartan Deputy Governor Sandiaga Uno, a wealthy businessman and political moderate. Already enjoying support from the meeting of Ulama, Prabowo favoured Sandiaga and an agenda based on economic interests, likely to be mainstays of the coming campaign.

It seems clear to everyone that Prabowo and his supporters are ready to use the powerful religious card against Jokowi. For the President, embracing an Islamic leader seems like an attempt to equalise perceptions that he harbours anti-Muslim tendencies. There have already been repeated attacks against the political adherence to Islam.

Most notably, during Jakarta’s Gubernatorial Election last year, Jokowi’s ally and then incumbent governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaya Purnama was accused of blasphemy following a speech he gave in the Thousand Islands Regency. Mass demonstrations ensued and a later trial resulted in a two-year prison sentence. As Prabowo and Sandiaga both played key roles in the support of now Governor Anies Baswedan, Jakarta has proved a proxy for the national election stage. Importantly, it was Ma’ruf who directly condemned Ahok at the time, and even testified against him in court.

The smear campaign led by hardline Islamic groups initiated a new enthusiasm for identity politics in Indonesia and has left its mark on Jokowi’s administration. Ma’ruf’s presence on the bill is a transparent attempt to shield Jokowi and appease factional pressure, whilst gathering the Islamic vote. Indeed, some recent actions could leave Jokowi vulnerable to Ahok-like attacks, including a presidential decree banning fundamentalist Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir and forced exile of Islamic Defenders Front leader Rizieq Shihab.

Given his background, there are widespread concerns that Ma’ruf might limit secular public policy and the protection of religious minorities. This could isolate some of Jokowi’s more progressive voting base.

Nonetheless, this is a savvy decision. Jokowi maintains a healthy lead in the polls, whilst his capture of the Muslim vote should become evident. Of course, this does not rule out a Prabowo upset. Lagging economic growth and fears of inflation will be easy targets for Prabowo-Sandiaga.

The VP registration could have important implications for domestic politics, but would a successful Jokowi administration mean for Indonesia’s foreign policy? There are a number of factors appearing to soften Ma’ruf’s potential influence on Indonesian foreign policy.

First, Ma’ruf’s policy positions have few international implications. Fatwa’s issued by MUI under Ma’ruf’s guidance mostly concern religious practice or domestic issues, such as use of vaccines (2018), forest burning (2016) and sexuality (2014). There is little evidence for his international or regional ambitions distinct from a broader Jokowi foreign policy doctrine.

Second, there is a gap in the translation between Islam in domestic politics and foreign policy. Although Islam has been a consistent factor in diplomacy and people-to-people links – for example, Indonesia’s ongoing support of Palestine - is based in their common religion. It is not clear that Indonesia’s foreign policy is structured on the basis of Islamic principles. Rather, Islam has tended to play a marginal role; it has never been an inherent part of a foreign policy framework nor served as the major basis of relations with other states. It seems unlikely that a new Jokowi administration will change this.

Third, to the extent that Islam persists within Indonesian foreign policy, it is difficult to see how this affects relationships with immediate regional powers. In the past, relations with other states rarely follow strict religious-moral lines. Indeed, one of Indonesia’s most turbulent relationships is with Malaysia, another Muslim majority country, where numerous diplomatic and cultural bouts continue to arise over border disputes, migrant workers and cultural appropriation.

In this way, Ma’ruf’s Islamic influence within an incumbent Jokowi government will likely catalyse only limited impacts on Indonesian foreign policy. Nonetheless, these events represent the ongoing rise of conservative Islam in Indonesia, and the full set of implications are yet to be properly understood.

Mason Littlejohn is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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