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Islam – the ticket to victory in the Indonesian election?

Image credit: Nugallery (Wikimedia: Creative Commons)

In the runup to Indonesia’s general elections to be held in April, the need for candidates to gain the support of Muslim groups has become evident. Current President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has often balanced a moderate Islamic base without unduly alienating conservative Islamic voters, particularly during his campaigning. It was the cultivation of a pluralist and moderate image, respectful of Islam, which catapulted Jokowi to victory in the 2014 elections.

However, the growing islamisation of public life in Indonesia since the 1990s has prompted the need to appeal to more conservative groups. Widodo has secured the support of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) – the world’s largest Muslim body – and appointed the Muslim scholar and head of the Indonesian Ulema Council, Ma’ruf Amin, as his vice-presidential candidate.

Jokowi’s decision appears to be paying dividends. In an October 2018 poll, 59 per cent of respondents supported his decision to appoint Ma’ruf. Despite appealing to more pious voters, Joko’s presidential opponent Prabowo Subianto-Uno, only gained the support of 23.3% of respondents. It seems Jokowi has learnt his lessons from the previous election, when more religiously inclined parties and voters supported Subianto because of his more devout image.

Much of the support Jokowi needs is in West Java, Indonesia’s most populous province and one of the archipelago’s more conservative areas. Jokowi’s strategy appears to hinge on co-opting religious groups such as the Indonesian Ulema Council by appointing senior members – like Ma’ruf – to government committees.

Ma’ruf provides the balance that Jokowi may very well need to reach a victory in April. Devout voters lean towards Amin on religious issues more so than they do towards businessman and former deputy-governor of Jakarta, Sandiago Uno, who is Prabowo’s nominee for vice-president. Ma’ruf has proved himself to hold political acumen and is an authority on the sharia economy. He has presented himself quite moderately in this election by praising religious minorities and even attracting supporters of Ahok, the ethnic Chinese and Christian former governor of Jakarta who was imprisoned for allegedly insulting Islam. He has also stated the need to uphold religious tolerance in order to justify the dispersion of violent radicals.

More importantly, Ma’ruf cultivates a religious camp which Jokowi will attempt to rely on to assuage concerns about his lack of Islamic credentials. This could be pivotal in the upcoming elections. Poltracking Indonesia recently reported that 58.5% of voters in the upcoming presidential race state that religion will be a factor when they come to decide their vote.

Aside from his appointment of Ma’ruf, Jokowi has been courting the conservative Islamic population for some time. Throughout 2017 and 2018, Jokowi has worked to become more attentive towards Islamic civil society. Among other measures, Jokowi has built personal links with leading Ulama – scholars of Islamic law and doctrine – and provided 1.5 trillion rupiah towards NU’s micro-financing scheme. Jokowi also adopted NU’s doctrinal pillar of Archipelagic Islam – Islam Nusantara – which is aimed at promoting the virtues of the predominantly Javanese Islamisation process.

While religion may be the winning ticket to victory, Jokowi must still tread carefully. His desire to be painted as a ‘true Islamic leader’ risks sidelining important supporters, particularly non-Muslim largely Christian ethnic-Chinese Indonesians, who are disappointed by Jokowi’s selection of Ma’ruf. Notably, Ma’ruf gave an incriminating testimony against Ahok.

Many ethnic-Chinese Indonesians believe Ahok became an easy target for a campaign based on ethnic and religious differences, which was indicative of persisting intolerance displayed towards the Chinese community in Indonesia. Furthermore, a higher proportion of Chinese Indonesians occupy a wealthier position in Indonesia, with Forbes reporting that the top fifty wealthiest Indonesians are of Chinese descent. They also control much of the country’s large conglomerates and wealth. As a result, alienating the ethnic Chinese population may also risk losing potential donors in the election race.

Promoting more Islamic principles could also jeapordise the religious diversity and democratic values promoted through the national ideology of Pancasila, which attempts to reconcile religion and democracy. There are already instances of democratic deterioration and religious intolerance within Indonesia which threaten the religious, pluralist foundations of Indonesian democracy. For example, the anti-Ahok campaign was based on a deeply intolerant, majoritarian agenda. Similarly, the Pan-Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir openly advocated that Indonesia become an Islamic caliphate before it was banned by Jokowi. Furthermore, Meiliana a Buddhist woman of Chinese heritage, was jailed for complaining about the mosque loudspeakers in her North Sumatran neighbourhood. Nor is her case an isolated one.

How far Jokowi goes in kowtowing to Islamic groups and promoting a political Islamic discourse will be crucial in shaping the future of Indonesia as a pluralistic country. While bowing to the conservative Islamic base may win him the election, it could be to the detriment to Indonesia’s status as a tolerant democracy.

Anjali Nadaradjane is a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws student at Macquarie University who has experience teaching and volunteering in Indonesia.

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