With the Bible and Sharia


The incumbent president faces his old challenger, Subianto. Widodo’s strategy hinges on his choice of running mate, an influential Muslim leader

BANGKOK – It’s a resumption of the 2014 run-off. Same two candidates, and unless there’s an unforeseen reversal, the outcome is unlikely to change: the outgoing president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is expected to win. But the Indonesia that approaches this presidential vote to be held on April 17, the fourth direct presidential election since the fall of Suharto in 1998, is not the same country it was five years ago. From an economic standpoint it has obviously grown, though less than its potential, weighed under by the usual burden of inefficiency and corruption. But more significantly, it’s a society in which conservative Islam has its say, and has already made its influence felt during the electoral campaign. The risk is that, regardless of the April result, this will have repercussions on minority intolerance, in an archipelago that has a very delicate ethnic and religious balance.

Widodo (55) is running for a second mandate as the clear favourite. For months the polls have awarded him a 20 point advantage over the challenger Prawobo Subianto, a 66 year-old former general who Widodo narrowly defeated in the 2014 elections. As so often happens in Indonesia, there are hardly any ideological differences between the two candidates, nor does ideology set them apart: they both tow a nationalist line even in economics. The real difference lies in their backgrounds: “Jokowi”, the son of a carpenter and small local businessman, is the first Indonesian politician of humble origins. Even before becoming president, as mayor of Surakarta, he was known for his pragmatic “man of the people” approach, his readiness to listen to people’s complaints and act accordingly, while Subianto, the son of a government appointed economist and a former son-in-law of Suharto, is, and always has been, very well connected. 

During the five years of Widodo’s government, the economy has grown between 5 and 6%. The president has reduced fuel subsidies and used the increased revenue to launch a massive infrastructure expansion programme. In a country were corruption is endemic, he is still considered “clean”. In the last year he has cleverly nursed his electorate on his way to re-election by offering pay rises in key sectors and increasing expenditure for the development of local communities, expanding welfare for the poorer sections of society by providing benefits for schools and education. On the economic front, the state’s acquisition of a share of over 51% of the Grasberg gold and copper mines in the vast Papua province from the Freeport McMoran and Rio Tinto companies was another great achievement, and has enabled Widodo to stand as the leader defending Indonesia’s interests against foreign appetites. But he does have weak points: inflation is still a problem, and the rupiah plunged to its lowest ever exchange rate ever against the dollar in December, before recovering at the start of the year.

Subianto’s electoral campaign has instead failed to meet expectations. In 2014 he was secured almost 47% of the vote by acting the tough “strong man” ready to play dirty to defeat his rival and almost succeeding after a sensational comeback. This time he seemed reluctant to run: apparently he only accepted after serious pressure from the Gerindra party, which his family has backed very heavily over the last decade. His electoral campaign has seemed to be short of funds and lacking in commitment compared to 2014. By choosing the young businessman Sandiaga Uno, a former deputy governor of Jakarta, as his deputy, he aims to win over the young vote. He is proposing a nationalist economic policy and criticises Widodo for not having done enough to fight inequality. But unless the economy bottoms out before the elections, he will have a hard time making up such a huge gap.

Speaking of deputies, the outgoing president’s choice is the most intriguing because it was clearly an attempt to bolster his popularity in an area where he could be found wanting: religion. Widodo has chosen Ma’ruf Amin, a 75 year old religious leader with a conservative past and the influential head of the Indonesian Council of the Ulema (MUI). Not that this has won him any votes: the more progressive among Widodo’s electorate will recall the MUI’s edicts against the LGBT community, women and the Ahmadiyyah Muslim minority. But by choosing Amin, Widodo is shielding himself against the rhetoric of Islamic conservatives, whose growing influence was apparent in 2016 when they managed to send the governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purname, to jail for blasphemy.

The “Ahok” affair, this being Purnama’s nickname, casts a shadow over these entire elections. A former Widodo deputy when the latter governed the capital, Ahok was a very respected leader with an untainted reputation. His only “fault” was the fact that he was a Christian from the Sino-Indonesian minority, a fact that made him totally unacceptable to Islamic conservatives: no one who worshipped Allah was allowed to vote for a non-Muslim politician, was how they saw it. By extrapolating a sentence in which Ahok seemed to criticize the Qu’ran, while he was only inviting people not to distort its message by discouraging Muslims to vote for him, an unlikely alliance of Islamic groups repeatedly filled the streets of Jakarata on the eve of his possible re-election. This amounted to a popular verdict against Ahok, who having lost the election was then sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy. Funnily enough, at the time the deputy presidential candidate Amin was among those calling for Ahok’s head and actually took to the stand in his trial to speak out against him; he now says he’s sorry.

The Muslim acts of intimidation had raised concerns ove the fragile nature of the Indonesian democracy, and the spread of religious conservativism in the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. However, the anti-terrorist forces in Jakarta have pursued their efforts to wipe out all militant group activities at source, some of which had been charmed by the rise of IS in the Middle East. After that victory, the unlikely alliance of Islamic groups known as the “movement 212” (on December 2 they called their largest demonstration) has gradually crumbled. The Widodo government has outlawed the radical Islamic organisation Hizb ut-Tahri, which was part of the coalition, but other divisions among the various components of the anti-Ahok alliance have surfaced.

So a potential source of destabilisation on the eve of the April vote has been contained, or at least is less of a concern than expected. This doesn’t mean that it’s disappeared for good. Subianto, though hardly with great enthusiasm (very little in his life, or that of his deputy Uno, suggests any particular level of devotion), continues to court the vote of the Islamic conservatives by making regular appearances at all their events. And the intimidations have forced the progressives and the representatives of the minorities to lie low. Even Ahok, who was released in January, has said he wants to be known by his official name, and no longer his name of Chinese Hakka origin. And last November the Sino-Indonesian Christian politician Grace Natalie, who heads a pro-Widodo party, was investigated by Police for having said that she would not support local laws based “on the Bible or the Sharia”. Once again the Islamic conservatives immediately cried blasphemy.


This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

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