Indonesia: Joko Widodo takes election gamble by playing ‘religion card’

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Indonesia: Joko Widodo takes election gamble by playing ‘religion card’


The most important character in the Indonesian presidential election could turn out to be neither of the two main candidates but a 76-year-old cleric enlisted to bolster the religious credentials of the incumbent Joko Widodo.

Ma’ruf Amin, a controversial choice as Mr Widowo’s running mate, heads Nahdlatul Ulama, the biggest Islamic organisation in a country with the largest Muslim population in the world. He was a catalyst for a 2016 blasphemy campaign that saw mass protests in Jakarta against the Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, who was later jailed in a move that alarmed international business. 

Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s incumbent president, right, along with his controversial running mate Ma’ruf Amin

Wednesday’s election — with 193m eligible voters — is a rematch of the 2014 contest that pitted Mr Widowo, then the governor of Jakarta and seen as a political outsider, against Prabowo Subianto, a former army general dismissed following allegations of human rights abuses against activists. Mr Widowo, commonly known as Jokowi, won narrowly on campaign promises to boost infrastructure and a call for a more meritocratic country. Civil society groups and NGOs backed him in the hope that he would defend minority rights.

But this election is being fought against a very different backdrop, say observers, arguing that the blasphemy case has acted as a catalyst for a rise in intolerance in the country. Some fear that Mr Ma’ruf’s influence, should the president — as seems likely — win a second term, could translate into a further Islamisation of Indonesia.

Two decades after the end of dictatorship in south-east Asia’s largest economy, some fear this could spark a reversal of its democratisation. Its openness to foreign investment is also at stake, with Mr Prabowo hinting at a desire to reassess commercial relations with China and to build on protectionism around natural resources in one of the world’s biggest commodity producers.

Those who back Mr Ma’ruf say the cleric is working to bring Islamic standards to Indonesian society and the economy but opponents argue that as one of the most influential clerics in the country he is responsible for poisoning community relations. 

Chart showing how over 50% of voters in Indonesia are under 40

“The religious polarisation of elections in Indonesia, long believed to be on the decline, reached new heights [with the anti-Ahok protests],” wrote Marcus Mietzner, assistant professor at Australian National University, in a recent paper. 

Speaking to the Financial Times, Mr Mietzner adds: “Jokowi deserves a lot of blame for not countering the intensifying Islamist discourse with a compelling pluralist narrative. Instead, he tried to adopt many of the Islamists’ themes — and the minorities were the main victims of that move.”

Supporters of Indonesian president Joko Widodo at a rally in Jakarta last weekend © AP

For many this is embodied in Mr Ma’ruf. He was brought on to the ticket to neutralise attacks on Mr Widowo for not being sufficiently Muslim — even if others argue that Mr Widowo actually represents a large chunk of the population as a moderate Muslim and centrist. Already under pressure after a crackdown on Islamist groups, the president has also been labelled by opponents as everything from a communist to an apologist for China — a major investor in the country — and even an advocate for the LGBT community.

The president’s supporters praise his infrastructure push — including the launch of ports, highways, airports and the long-awaited Jakarta underground network — in a disjointed country of about 17,000 islands. But other younger, urban voters who backed him in 2014 are critical of him for failing to protect religious freedoms and for playing what they describe as a religious-based political game to win the Muslim vote. 

“Jokowi has not invested enough political capital to protect religious, gender and sexual orientation minorities,” says Andreas Harsono, researcher for Human Rights Watch in Indonesia, adding that the president — not a member of the military or business elite — used the little capital that he had to force through infrastructure development.

The most disillusioned former supporters of Mr Widowo — who appears comfortably ahead in opinion polls — have joined an abstention movement, Saya Golput, led by Lini Zurlia, a Jakarta-based female gay rights activist who voted for Mr Widowo in 2014. “We thought he [Mr Widowo] was going to really be a new hope for us,” she says. But the elevation of Mr Ma’ruf — and the appointment of former generals to Mr Widowo’s cabinet — has left her frustrated. “That’s when I decided 100 per cent that I was not going to vote for either Jokowi or Prabowo”.

Chart showing how Joko Widodo consistently leads in Indonesia election polling

Described by Human Rights Watch as “central to some of the most intolerant elements of Indonesian contemporary religious and political culture” Mr Ma’ruf was never supposed to be a candidate for vice-president. He won out in an internal power struggle within the ruling coalition. There is a visible lack of chemistry between the president and his running mate. At a campaign rally on Saturday Mr Widowo applauded diversity in the country while Mr Ma’ruf led an Islamic prayer for electoral victory. A few hours later, at the final presidential debate, the candidate for vice-president appeared a peripheral figure.

But, having won a seat at the table, critics fear Mr Ma’ruf will push an Islamic agenda as the price for his support. In what is already a socially conservative country — where homosexuality is illegal in the province of Aceh and where publicising atheism can land you in jail — some fear that will make minority groups more vulnerable.

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, a former general who was dismissed from the army following allegations of human rights abuses © Bloomberg

Mr Ma’ruf has criticised the constitutional court for rejecting a petition to criminalise gay sex and has pushed for a broad anti-pornography law. Under his chairmanship, the Ulama Council issued a fatwa, or religious ruling, against the Ahmadiyya Muslim minority for deviating from Koranic teachings, and a separate one calling for the criminalisation of LGBT activities.

Yet his most famous intervention came with the issuing of a fatwa against Mr Basuki for blasphemy after the ethnic Chinese and Christian politician dismissed the notion that the Koran prohibits Muslims from selecting a non-Muslim as their leader. 

The move helped trigger mass rallies against Mr Basuki, a Joko ally who ended up losing the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections to an ally of Mr Prabowo and was later found guilty of blasphemy. At the time Mr Widowo’s popularity was soaring, but Mr Basuki’s demise was seen as a victory for Islamists frustrated by the president’s attempts to limit their influence over the government.

To placate protesters, Mr Widowo acquiesced to the prosecution of his ally. But when a second mass rally in Jakarta followed, the government responded by banning the local branch of Hizbut Tahrir — a global organisation calling for the establishment of a caliphate in the Muslim world that has been outlawed in many Muslim-majority countries as well as China and Russia. It also sought to prosecute Habib Rizieq Shihab, a cleric who was seen as a leader of the anti-Ahok protests. Mr Rizieq — who appeared via video at a recent mass rally of Prabowo supporters in Jakarta — was effectively pushed into exile in Saudi Arabia. 

“Prabowo has stayed the same,” says Charlotte Setijadi, assistant professor at Singapore Management University. “It’s Jokowi who has changed.” 

Surveys compiled after the Jakarta rallies — which attracted upwards of 700,000 people — by Mr Mietzner and Burhanuddin Muhtadi, a political analyst, show the share of Muslims objecting to non-Muslims holding political office jumped by about 12 percentage points from before the anti-Ahok rallies in 2016 to 54.6 per cent in 2018. These results also hint at the impact of the successful mobilisation of Islamist groups, which have a long history in Indonesia, but which have often lacked direction. 

In 2016 a group of conservative academics and activists known as the Family Love Alliance asked the constitutional court to ban sex outside marriage. Although the request was rejected it came amid a flood of anti-homosexual statements from government officials, with higher education cabinet minister Muhammad Nasir calling for a ban on all LGBT student groups.

Mass prayers at a campaign rally for presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto in Jakarta © Reuters

“It was a good opportunity for any politician to exploit this issue and come out as the hero for society,” says Ricky Gunawan, director of the Jakarta-based Community Legal Aid Institute, which provides support to marginalised communities. “[By saying they] will fight for the agenda to shut down any concern about the LGBT community.”

In the past three years, there has also been a surge in raids by the police on private homes, hotels or establishments linked to the LGBT community, according to Human Rights Watch.

This growing intolerance has gained the attention of international business. EU representatives and the American Chamber of Commerce in Indonesia both raised concerns with the authorities in Jakarta after the move to ban sex outside marriage, according to someone familiar with the situation, stressing that it would have had an impact on the investment climate had it passed. 

Beyond the question of faith, the election has been dominated by voter concerns over the economy. Under Mr Widowo growth has been steady at an average annual rate of 5 per cent — lower than he had promised and below other south-east Asian economies such as Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam — but still healthy.

His $340bn infrastructure plan has won support among voters and “will create a multiplier impact on the broader economy”, says Aldian Taloputra, senior Indonesia economist at Standard Chartered. The country, which averted a currency crisis last year after the rupiah fell to its lowest level since the Asian financial crisis in 1997, has also had to cope with a fall in commodity prices that has reversed in 2019.

Jakarta’s governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, front right, on trial for alleged blasphemy in Jakarta in 2017 © AFP

It is also punching below its weight in terms of foreign direct investment — which dropped 8.8 per cent year on year in 2018. Faltering export demand in Indonesia’s most important markets — including China, a big buyer of its raw materials — led to the country posting a record trade deficit of $8.57bn for 2018.

Gareth Leather, Asia economist at Capital Economics, says that while economic growth has been reasonably positive, “it won’t get anywhere near” the 7 per cent target set by Mr Widowo in 2014 without a more competitive manufacturing sector. “And to do that one big thing that needs to change is labour market rigidity.” 

Food security also tends to play a big part in Indonesian elections, allowing candidates to play the protectionist card. Mr Prabowo, who is campaigning on a more populist platform, has repeatedly criticised the import of rice from countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, arguing that it has lowered prices for domestic crops. 

A metro train in Jakarta, one of the infrastructure projects initiated by President Joko Widodo © Bloomberg

The south-east Asian nation is still struggling to build a skilled labour force, which, say economists, could prevent it from taking full advantage of its young population — 42 per cent of its population is aged 24 or below. 

And while Indonesia is climbing up the ranks for ease of doing business, some foreign investors — Singapore, Japan and China are the three largest sources — still complain about the levels of red tape and bureaucracy, disjointed regulation between central and local governments and “resource nationalism” that protects sectors deemed strategic by authorities. 

While Mr Prabowo has campaigned on a more nativist platform — his main Jakarta rally was steeped in Islamic rhetoric, with morning prayers at 4am followed by a string of impassioned speeches by Muslim clerics — analysts say that the two candidates’ economic policy plans are not vastly different.

“Whatever the outcome, many fundamental problems in Indonesia will not be addressed,” says Ian Wilson, a senior lecturer in politics and security at Murdoch University’s Asia Research Centre in Australia, in reference to wealth distribution in what remains a tycoon-dominated economy and environmental concerns in a country where rainforests have been devastated. “That’s the great tragedy about this election.” 

China: election tension evident over Asian superpower 

Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping © AFP

China is Indonesia’s top trading partner and its third largest source of foreign direct investment. Its Belt and Road Initiative will deliver — albeit with delays — a $6bn high-speed rail project connecting Jakarta to the West Java city of Bandung.

Yet Beijing’s influence is a sensitive topic in a country that was torn apart by ethnic violence as recently as two decades ago. And it has also seeped into election campaigning.

Prabowo Subianto, the challenger in the presidential race, has hinted that he is open to reassessing China-backed projects if he wins the election. His comments echo the stance taken by Malaysia’s prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has cancelled three Beijing-linked pipelines and renegotiated the cost of a railway since taking office last year.

The opposition has previously accused President Joko Widodo of being pro-Beijing and made claims that Indonesia is being flooded with workers from China, playing on tensions with the ethnic Chinese community, which accounts for just 2 per cent of the population but wields strong influence in the tycoon-dominated economy.

Indonesia “has been nothing like a pushover” on the Belt and Road Initiative, which has left other countries in the region with debt piles linked to Beijing-backed projects, says Douglas Ramage, managing director at Bower Group Asia in Jakarta. He points to the country’s past success in “balancing great powers from a position of relative weakness”.

It has also pushed back against Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Last year it inaugurated a military base on the Natuna islands, on the edge of the disputed waters. “There is no negotiation about that,” Mr Widowo told the Financial Times last month. “It is very clear . . . Natuna is our territory.”

But he was much less vocal on the incarceration of an estimated 1m Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province, leading to protests at Jakarta’s Chinese embassy last year and criticism by activists and conservative Islamic groups alike.



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