Southeast AsiaPolitics

Eye on re-election, Widodo plays the Islam card

Indonesian leader selects an influential conservative cleric as his running mate for 2019 polls, a calculated response to opposition criticism of his spiritual credibility

Jakarta, August 14, 2018 2:47 PM (UTC+8)
Indonesian President Joko Widodo prays during Nuzulul Quran event at Presidential Merdeka Palace in Jakarta, Indonesia on June 5, 2018. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum

In a country with the world’s largest Muslim population of over 228 million adherents, it might seem odd that Indonesian President Joko Widodo is worried about the Islamic vote at next April’s simultaneous presidential and legislative elections.

But his controversial choice of aging conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his 2019 running mate is a clear sign it has weighed heavily on him in the 16 months since primordial forces brought down his political ally, ethnic Chinese and Christian Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama, on blasphemy charges.

While there is no doubting that Indonesia will not be ready for a non-Muslim president for decades to come, most opinion polls show that once past that underlying consideration Indonesian voters regard devout religiosity as a minor factor in their choice of a candidate.

Recent local election results and other anecdotal evidence suggest opposition efforts to make the president appear un-Islamic have been largely ineffective. But by choosing the 75-year-old Amin over Mohammad Mahfud Mahmodin, 61, a former chief justice of the Constitutional Court, Widodo is not taking any chances.

His selection of a doctrinaire religious figure to serve as his potential deputy in the executive branch sets a precedent which secularists fear may become a blueprint for future elections.

While Amin may be an expert in Islamic banking and economics, he has none of the worldliness and business savvy of incumbent Jusuf Kalla in an age when the vice president is expected to do more than pour the tea.

Indonesian cleric Ma’ruf Amin heads Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest mass Muslim organization. Photo: Youtube

As chairman of the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), the nation’s top Muslim clerical body and supreme leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest mass Muslim organization, Amin has far superior religious credentials to Mahfud.

It’s a point that was impressed upon Widodo at a last-hour meeting of his coalition partners, six of whom hold parliamentary seats. Among them, the United Development (PPP) and National Awakening (PKB) parties are both closely affiliated to the NU and its claimed 90 million-strong membership.

“It got to a point where the president thought his own spiritual credibility was on the line,” says one veteran politician. “He lost his nerve and succumbed to the pressures.”

Some of that pressure apparently came from Amin himself. The day before the nomination announcement on August 9 he was quoted as warning Widodo that if he persisted with Mahfud, then regarded as the front-runner, “then we (presumably referring to NU) will say wassalam, Arabic for “goodbye.’”

Sources in Widodo’s circle could provide little insight into the thinking behind the decision and why the selection process had dragged on until the final hours. As one senior official put it resignedly: “That is the real Indonesian political landscape today.”

With Amin on board, Widodo may well split the conservative Muslim vote and ward off efforts by hard-liners to attack his Muslim credentials and repeat unfounded but damning allegations that his parents belonged to the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party. But he also runs the risk of diminishing his standing among his own wide range of supporters who might now be tempted to abstain from voting.

Then presidential candidate Joko Widodo gestures on arrival at a nationwide television debate, July 5, 2014. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad

Ironically, Widodo’s dramatic change of horses came at the same time as the 11th hour collapse of a budding opposition alliance between Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) leader Prabowo Subianto and former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party.

Rejecting Yudhoyono’s son, Agus Harimurti, as his vice presidential candidate, Prabowo instead plucked Jakarta vice governor and wealthy businessman Sandiaga Uno seemingly from nowhere in a puzzling effort to placate his two other allies, the Justice and Prosperity (PKS) and National Mandate (PAN) parties.

The Democrats will stay with Prabowo, following National Election Commission (KPU) rules that require parties to join one coalition or the other. But one Yudhoyono aide claimed they were totally blindsided by the move to ditch Harimurti, which was taken without any prior consultation.

“It came out of the blue. We don’t know what happened,” he said, denying claims that Yudhoyono had annoyed Prabowo and his coalition partners by actively pushing his son’s candidacy. “That’s the mystery. Up to two days ago everything was fine.”

Sources close to Prabowo said the ex-president had refused an offer of eight Cabinet seats as a trade-off for leaving Harimurti off the ticket. But what puzzles those around him is that Prabowo had not once previously mentioned Uno as a possible candidate, saying at one point he did not have the temperament for top-level politics.

The former vice governor has already reportedly committed one trillion rupiah (US$69 million) to the campaign, a sizeable chunk of his personal wealth, and will no doubt have to spend a lot more now that Yudhoyono is unlikely to loosen his own substantial purse strings.

Prabowo Subianto waves as he leaves the Constitutional Court in Jakarta August 6, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Widodo sought to put a brave face on his choice of Amin, describing him as a wise religious leader with vast experience as a former PPP and PKB lawmaker going back to the birth of president Suharto’s New Order era in the early 1970s.

Muhammad Romahurmuzly, chairman of the Sharia-based PPP, said the new team represented what he called a nationalist-religious ticket. “We, party leaders, were looking for figures that represented religiosity who can reduce hatred in social media.”

But that has only added to the wave of disappointment among educated voters and ethnic minorities, who recall Amin’s role as Yudhoyono’s adviser when MUI issued a religious edict in 2005 against secularism, pluralism and liberalism that called into question Indonesia’s reputation for tolerance.

Amin also added his voice to a highly inflammatory 2008 fatwa banning the propagation of teachings by the ostracized Muslim sect Ahmadiyah, which served as justification for a series of bloody mob attacks against its small minority of followers, where police played the role of onlookers.

Established in 1975, MUI is a quasi-government agency that issues fatwas and helps shape government policy in Islamic matters. It has hundreds of offices across Indonesia and its board comprises representatives of all of the country’s Sunni Muslim organizations.

An Ahmadiyah sect cleric speaks through a door after authorities shuttered his Al Misbah mosque in a 2013 file photo. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

In early 2005, Yudhoyono made it clear he had placed MUI in a central role in matters of Islamic faith “so that it becomes clear what the difference is between areas that are the preserve of the state and areas where the government or state should heed the fatwa from the MUI and ulema.”

That handed control of religion and its impacts on public life to a conservative lobby that went on to strike further blows at the trappings of secular Indonesia, issuing edicts against Valentine’s Day and even seeking to forbid Muslims – including the president – from attending Christmas Day celebrations.

The move was then roundly criticized by Azyumardi Azra, the respected head of the National Islamic University’s graduate school, who had previously served as Vice President Kalla’s religious and social affairs adviser: “The MUI is not a state institution and its fatwas should not be regarded as laws.”

It wasn’t just fatwas. Human Rights Watch documents the cases of at least 120 people who have been convicted of blasphemy over the past 14 years. Although the so-called blasphemy law has been on the statute books since 1965, and is part of the Criminal Code, it was rarely used until Yudhoyono took power.

Amin’s declaration in October 2016 that Purnama had committed blasphemy by trying to re-interpret a verse in the Koran set in train events that led to the creation of the 212 Movement, the right-wing coalition that destroyed his high-flying career and left Widodo deeply worried that his ally’s demise would cast a shadow over his own political future.

Indonesian Islamist groups rally calling for the government to suspend then Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama for blasphemy. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Wahyu Putro

The influential cleric was also an expert prosecution witness at the outgoing governor’s heavily criticized blasphemy trial that sent Purnama to jail for two years – a term that will end only days after next April’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

One of the earlier candidates on Widodo’s short list was Golkar Party chairman and Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto, who will remain a key ally when the president is still widely expected to win a second term.

But Hartarto was dropped as a vice president candidate after a ruling coalition meeting in Bogor several weeks ago, where the president decided on a non-party candidate to avoid ruffling political feathers. That appeared to leave Mahfud and two-term West Nusa Tenggara governor Zainul Majdi, 46, a progressive Egyptian-educated Islamic scholar, as his two remaining choices.

Amin only appeared to arrive on the scene in late July when Koran Tempo published a front-page story quoting him as saying that he was willing to stand beside Widodo. “We, the clerics,” he said, “should be ready if the state calls on us.”

It remains to be seen what influence he would have on a new government’s policy, particularly the pending Halal Law, a draconian measure pushed by MUI and passed in the final days of the Yudhoyono administration which requires halal certification for everything from foodstuffs and cosmetics to pharmaceuticals, clothing and even car-seat covers.

The president refused to give his approval for the law, assigning Kalla and government legal experts to work on a revision to the potentially disastrous law. The Health Ministry and worried businessman alike say it isn’t workable in practice and an invitation to rampant bribery.

While he may have slightly tempered his views since becoming NU’s supreme leader in 2015, Amin has been hard to read, supporting the Pancasila state secular ideology and NU’s pluralistic Islam Nusantara philosophy on one hand, but pushing Sharia law and a ban on gay community rights on the other.

But Indonesian pluralists fear the worst if he becomes the nation’s next deputy leader.

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