Creeping Islamism Plays Role in Indonesia’s VP Picks

The extent to which increasing Islamic sensibilities are creeping into political life has been exemplified by the fact that both President Joko Widodo and his longtime foe, retired general Prabowo Subianto, have picked running mates with Islamic antecedents for the 2019 general election.

The contest repeats the 2014 presidential sweepstakes, in which Jokowi, as the president is known, beat Prabowo by a relatively healthy 53.15 percent to Prabowo’s 46.85 percent. This time Prabowo pairs up with onetime playboy turned long distance runner and newly devout Muslim, Sandiaga Uno, who left his lucrative career as a business magnate to become deputy Jakarta governor in a 2017 race that was characterized by bitter Islamic opposition to the sitting governor, a Chinese Christian named Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, widely known as Ahok, who was jailed on spurious charges of blaspheming the Quran after the election. Sandiaga played a crucial role in ousting Ahok.

Apparently alarmed by the rising Islamic current, Jokowi, in a move that disconcerted his followers, chose Ma'ruf Amin, the supreme leader of the central board of Nahdlatul Ulama the major Sunni organization in the country, and chairman of the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s top Islamic clerical body.

Jokowi had been widely expected to name Mohammad Mahfud, known popularly as Mahfud MD, the former chief justice of the Constitutional Court and a highly respected academic. Ma’ruf signed a MUI decision that Ahok, Jokowi's political ally and considered Jakarta’s most effective governor, had insulted the Quran in the middle of the campaign. The fatwa was then used by hardline Muslim groups as a justification for holding a series of raucous demonstrations against Ahok. Although Amin finally opposed the massive demonstrations, his opinion can no longer stem the mass movement.

“Jokowi is panicky. He is trying to protect his flank,” said a western businessman in Jakarta. “I find the MUI guy very scary.”

At least nine parties support Jokowi, Indonesia's first president from outside the country’s political, business and military elites. All party leaders accompanied Jokowi in the announcement of his VP candidate and when registering to the KPU.

The vice presidential picks also indicate the diminishing clout of the former president, Susilo Bambang Yuhoyono, and his wife, Ani, who had put on a full-court press to have their son Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, named Prabowo’s running mate. The disappointed Democrats gave their official support in the last minutes before Prabowo registered with the KPU. The Election Law bans political parties from sitting out the presidential election.

Prabowo was supported by four parties, one of them the Democrats despite a squabble that blew up after Prabowo turned down AHY, as Agus is known, for Sandiaga. A top Democratic Party figure accused Sandiaga of bribing Prabowo to get the nomination. SBY was not present when Prabowo announced Uno as his running mate, and only sent AHY to accompany them when registering with the KPU.

AHY had previously participated in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, but lost in the first round with only 17.07 percent of the vote. Democratic Party Deputy Secretary General Andi Arief accused Prabowo of choosing Sandiaga because the businessman was willing to give Rp500 billion (US$34.6 million) to each of the two Islamic parties backing Prabowo, the national Mandate Party (PAN) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), as compensation because their VP candidates were passed over as well, with Arief calling Prabowo a "cardboard general.”

The 49-year-old Sandiaga, one of the richest persons in Indonesia, denied Arief's accusation that he gave the bribe, known as a "dowry, to secure the vice presidential nomination, but arguing that he would contribute to campaign funds and provide "assistance" to the parties supporting him.

"I am willing to provide a portion of the campaign costs, and there is assistance to the campaign team, as well as assistance to the party. That is our commitment," he said.

Although Sandiaga and Prabowo’s supporting parties denied the claim, Arief remained adamant that there had been a deal. "I have good intentions, trying to prevent Prabowo from taking the wrong step. Sandiaga Uno can be indicated as proffering a bribe because he still serves as deputy governor and the PAN-PKS leadership can be involved (in this case). This has become public knowledge," he said.

The granting of "dowries" is prohibited concerning the election of regional heads, which states that political parties or coalitions of parties may not receive compensation in any form during the nomination process. Candidates are also prohibited from giving rewards to political parties. Indonesian Corruption Watch (ICW) research found that candidates often give dowries, but it is difficult to prove.

Controversy Over Jokowi's Choice

Jokowi's decision to choose Ma'ruf Amin shocked the public. Various surveys never included Ma’aruf as a candidate. The 75-year-old cleric has served as a legislator at both the local and national levels and is respected by both moderate and hardline Muslims. Amin is also on the board of government agencies promoting the values of Pancasila, the country's official ideology.

Jokowi said that he chose Amin because he was a wise and respected cleric in Indonesia. As a nationalist, the 57-year old president felt the need to work with religious figure. "I think we complete each other, nationalistic and religious," Jokowi said.

Romahurmuziy, Chair of the United Development Party (PPP), one of Jokowi's allies, acknowledged that Amin's electability was not as good as other figures, but he could be accepted by all supporting parties and the public. "He is a meeting point (of all differences)," he said.

Jokowi's camp, Romahurmuziy said, is aware of the awakening of political identity which is marked by the strengthening of SARA, an acronym meaning ethnic, religious, racial and social group sentiment after the Jakarta race. The Muslim candidate, Anies Baswedan, rode into power on the strength of the religious exploitation campaign.

Jokowi has long been the subject of unfounded rumors that he is a non-Muslim, of Chinese descent, and a member of the Indonesian Communist Party, all of which he has denied repeatedly.

"He (Amin) is able to reduce the exploitation of SARA issues," Romahurmuziy said.

Religion Predicted to Disturb Election

The results of a survey held by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) stated that politicization of SARA would be the biggest obstacle in the presidential election. The survey was held from April-July 2018 among 145 experts from various fields. They predict potential disruptions to include politicization of SARA (23.6 percent); a horizontal conflict between supporters (12.3 percent); security disturbances (10.4 percent); and other lesser issues.

In addition to political conditions, the results of the LIPI survey also showed that religious tolerance has been diminishing over the past five years. This includes, among others, the widespread politicization of religion and race, mutual disbelief, discrimination against and persecution of minorities, and social conflict.

"In the short term, the (political) elites need to be controlled because they will manipulate the SARA issue," said LIPI researcher Syarif Hidayat.