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‘Conservative turn’ will continue in Indonesian presidential election next year

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (centre left) shakes hands with his vice-presidential running mate, Ma'ruf Amin (centre right), during a meeting with supporters before registering their bid for the 2019 election in Jakarta, Indonesia. Mast Irham/EPA

The recent announcement of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s running mate in his re-election bid suggests the continued strong influence of conservative groups over politics in the world’s largest Muslim population.

A pluralist and nationalist figure, Jokowi picked Ma'ruf Amin, a conservative Muslim cleric, as his vice-presidential candidate.

By chosing Ma'ruf, Jokowi aims to appeal to a growing Islamist constituency that has dominated the national political landscape. His decision may further accommodate the rise of conservative groups in Indonesia’s Muslim politics.

The political background

Compared to previous Indonesian general elections, religion, especially Islam, has increasingly played a major role in national politics.

We have witnessed how political actors used the Islam card to win votes in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017.

Politicians formed a movement to defend Islam and called it the “212 Movement” – from the date of the rally, December 2. They demanded the Chinese and Christian Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama be ousted from the Jakarta governorship and be imprisoned for blasphemy.

The movement’s strategy to use ethnic and religious sentiments to turn Jakarta voters against Ahok was very effective.

Because of this, its organisers, the National Movement to Guard Ulama’s Religious Edicts (GNPF Ulama) and the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), have become a force to be reckoned with in the 2019 presidential election.


Immediately after their success in ousting Ahok, 212 Movement alumni made it clear they were opposed to Jokowi.

The groups have been attacking Jokowi for his “anti-Islamic” policies. This includes prosecuting ulemas and developing infrastructure projects that do not help poor Muslims.

These Islamist activists have been promoting a social media campaign, organised by opposition parties Gerindra and the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), calling for a new president in 2019. The campaign goes with the hashtag #2019GantiPresiden (#2019ChangePresident) campaign.

Another key player in the 212 Movement is FPI. FPI was a hardline Islamic organisation, backed by the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), that carried out acts of thuggery against groups and establishments deemed “un-Islamic”, such as bars and nightclubs and religious minorities. But it has changed into an Islamist organisation with a political agenda. FPI wants to change the Indonesian state into an Islamic state enshrined with Islamic principles.

FPI has long demanded that an ideal presidential ticket should consist of an Islamic leader and a secular nationalist politician, preferably from the TNI.

By having this combination, the conservative group hopes to gain support from the nationalists and TNI to create a more Islamic Indonesian society. This would exclude non-Muslims from elected offices and the public sector in general.

As FPI involves itself more in politics and less in criminal and violent activities, more Indonesian Muslims find its activities acceptable.

A recent study found that during one of the anti-Ahok rallies in November 2016, 22.6% of Indonesian Muslims had a favourable view of FPI, compared to just 16.6% in July 2011.

An Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) study found support among Indonesian Muslims for changing Indonesia into an Islamic state increased from 4.6% in 2005 to 13.2% this year.

Besides FPI’s growing popularity, Jokowi is also troubled by the fact that his opponents – backed by conservative Muslim groups – scored several victories during last June’s regional elections.

For instance, they won the North Sumatra governorship by deploying the same ethno-religious sentiments to attack another candidate, Djarot Saiful Hidayat. Djarot is a former Jakarta deputy governor to Ahok.

The conservative group almost won the gubernatorial election in West Java, one of the most crucial areas in the national election.

The eventual winner, Ridwan Kamil, was initially known as a pluralist and moderate politician. But, to secure his victory, he had to make overtures towards conservative Islamists.

Jokowi and his advisers clearly had these troubling political trends in mind when preparing for his re-election campaign. That’s why he picked a running mate who is acceptable among conservative Islamic groups to draw their support for his re-election bid.

Jokowi and his Islam card

Jokowi won the 2014 presidential election with an image of a pluralist and moderate Islamic figure.

For his next presidential campaign, however, Jokowi has no choice but to bolster his own Islamic credentials.

The Jokowi campaign team has clearly calculated that Islamist groups from the “212 Movement” are the primary stumbling block for his re-election.

Hence, it came as no surprise that Jokowi chose Ma’ruf Amin, the chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), as his vice-presidential nominee.

By nominating Ma’ruf, Jokowi hopes to split the Islamist opposition, especially from GNPF Ulama and other 212 Movement alumni.

These groups deeply respect Ma'ruf, as he gave religious legitimacy to the 212 Movement. Under his watch, MUI issued a religious opinion (fatwa) declaring Ahok a blasphemer.

Ma’ruf was also a key player behind two controversial MUI fatwa (edicts) in 2005. One fatwa targets liberal and secular influences within Islam, including the Liberal Islam Network (JIL).

Another fatwa targets the Ahmadi minorities. Following the fatwa, violent attacks and persecution against the Ahmadi group increased.

So far, Jokowi’s strategy to split the support of conservative Islamist groups seems to be working. The GNPF ulama has welcomed Ma'ruf’s nomination. The group calls it a “very smart decision”.

With Ma'ruf as his running mate, Jokowi now claims that “he is a leader who respect the ulama’s demands”. He is showing he is a true Islamic leader.

Jokowi’s coalition also claims that many 212 Movement alumni can now support his re-election bid, since he now has as his running mate an ulama that supports the movement.

The rise of conservative turn

Ma’ruf’s selection also means that to win votes Indonesian politicians continue to accommodate Islamist groups that are pushing for a “conservative turn”.

Jokowi’s move to be closer to Islamic groups has alienated some former supporters. Disappointed by Jokowi’s selection of Ma'ruf, some Jokowi supporters who come from a non-Muslim Chinese Indonesian background have threatened to “be absent from voting or even vote for Prabowo” to express their displeasure.

In the long run, the conservatives’ continued prominence in the country’s politics might endanger Indonesia’s long-term status as a secular and democratic country. As enshrined in the national ideology Pancasila and the 1945 Indonesian Constitution, Indonesia must guarantee equality for all citizens irrespective of their ethnic or religious backgrounds.

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