Indonesia is set to hold its presidential election on April 19, 2019. The occasion is the most important democratic event for the people as they will choose a candidate to lead the country until 2024.
The excitement of welcoming this democratic exercise can be felt throughout the country.
The candidates include the incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and the former lieutenant general of the armed forces, Prabowo Subianto. Jokowi has picked Indonesian cleric Ma’aruf Amin as his vice-presidential candidate. Amin previously served as the chairman of the Indonesian Islamic Scholars Council (MUI) and Advisory Leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization. On the other hand, Subianto has chosen the current vice-governor of Jakarta and businessman, Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno, as his running mate.
Since the candidates for president and vice-president were announced, debates and discussions surrounding the election have begun to appear in the public sphere. These include subjects such as the background of the candidates, their policies, and their potential implications on the nation. One of the most important subjects is the issue of religious and identity sentiments which was prevalent in the previous 2014 presidential election and the subsequent regional elections such as Jakarta’s gubernatorial election in 2017.
Indonesia is a country with Muslims comprising 87.2% of the total population. With this large number, there are, of course, many Islamic organisations in the country. Of all of these, the largest are Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) with 69.3% of the Muslim population, Muhammadiyah with 14.5% and followed by Islamic Defender Front (FPI) with 9%.
These three organisations have different sources of support in the country. NU’s base is concentrated on the rural farmer group, urban workers, and Pesantren (Islamic boarding schools). Meanwhile, as for Muhammadiyah, its supporters are mainly among educated Indonesians. While NU and Muhammadiyah bases are moderate, FPI’s consists of conservative Muslim populations.
With a small support base, in previous years the influence of these Islamic organisations on electoral politics has tended towards stagnation. However, in the aftermath of Jakarta’s gubernatorial election in 2017 which strengthened identity politics in Indonesia, it is believed that the influence of Islamic organisations on the electoral voices of Muslim population has increased.
This growth is caused by the tendency of religious sentiments that can strengthen identity politics, whereby the candidates use religion as a “tool” to win and therefore seeking support from Muslim organisations.
The overtones of Chinese vs Pribumi (Native Indonesians) or Muslim vs anti-Muslim , for example, were apparent among those who criticised Jokowi’s administration, claiming that Jokowi is pro-Chinese and anti-Islam, backing his former vice governor in Jakarta, who was brought to justice after stating that Muslims had been deluded by a Quranic verse which states that they should not elect non-Muslims leaders during his campaign.
Meanwhile, those who are on the other side are claimed to be Muslim extremists or anti-Chinese. For example, Purnama’s opponent in Jakarta gubernatorial election, Anies Baswedan who is now the governor of Jakarta, was categorised as a hard-line Muslim.
These identity politics were also prevalent during the 2018 regional elections which had just finished. In the midst of these conditions, Indonesia’s General Election Commission did not provide sanctions that can deter the use of identity politics in the elections.
The 2019 Election: Muslims versus Muslims
With these conditions, people believe that the electoral voices of Muslims affiliated with Islamic organisations will also be influential in the 2019 presidential election. More so, experiences show that religious sentiments which lead to identity politics can be used to increase the electoral votes of Muslim populations.
Nonetheless, unlike the previous elections, the use of religious sentiments in the upcoming election will likely take place among Muslim themselves. This is especially because the two current presidential and vice-presidential candidates have backing from different Islamic organisations; Jokowi-Ma’ruf has support from moderate Islamic groups while Prabowo-Uno has strong backing from conservative Islamic organisations; although later Prabowo, who had been supported by conservative Muslims, was believed to have not paid attention to these organisations’ recommendations in choosing his vice president. His choice of Uno, who comes from a business, instead of religious, background was a surprise to many. This also makes some Muslim scholars disillusioned, even though many Islamic organisations still support Prabowo, claiming that Uno is a Santri (Muslim student).
On the other hand, Jokowi who once said that Muslim scholars should not be used for politics, chose Amin, a Muslim scholar. His choice is believed to be Jokowi’s strategy to reduce the prevalent claim that he is anti-religion. Amin has even alluded to criticising Prabowo’s side for not choosing a Muslim scholar.
This shows that the issue of religion has already been used even when the 2019 presidential election has not begun. This condition reminds the people of the previous 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, whereby religious sentiment was used for politics.
Nonetheless, in Jakarta’s election, religious sentiments were seemingly taking place in the form of “Muslims vs non-Muslims”; whereby the debates were taking place among the supporters of the current governor, Anies Baswedan, the majority of whom are Muslims, and the supporters of Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama, a Chinese-descent Christian. In the 2019 election, things would be different.
Given that Widodo, who in Jakarta’s election was taking side with Ahok (who was his vice governor when he led Jakarta) has chosen Ma’ruf Amin, an Islamic scholar, and will compete against Subianto-Uno, who since 2014’s election represent “the Muslim’s voice” and supported by many Muslim organisations, it is likely that Muslim voters will be polarised. In that case, the concern that then arises is, even though both candidates in the 2019 presidential election has some kind of religious affiliation, the issue of religious sentiment will likely be talking point among the Muslim populations.
If the use of religious sentiment will strengthen and will lead to the use of identity politics in the 2019 presidential election, people are worried that the integration of the nation, especially among Muslim populations, will be threatened, particularly when the candidate pairs are supported by Islamic organisations with different backgrounds.
Moreover, there are no sanctions that can be applied by the Indonesia’s General Election Commission (KPU) related to the use of religious sentiments. Also, do not forget voters from other religions, how can candidates win their hearts without representation of their identities in either camp?
Religious sentiment will never be reduced if there is no action either from the government or from the two camps themselves because the community will be very easily led by unbalanced opinions.
It is therefore important for both camps not to use ulama as a tool, because both parties already have massive Muslim support.
Moreover, all narrations using religious or identity sentiments must be avoided before and during the campaign for the realisation of clean elections which can provide fair and best results for the country.
What is also important is that Muslim voters must be smart to use their right to vote, not to be led by religious issues. Identities should be put aside in their votes, and they should base their choices on ideas, achievements, and capabilities. The unity of the nation must be prioritized. Make the presidential election a healthy contest between the nation’s best figures.
Featured image by Ikhlasul Amal, 2018.