By Kanupriya Kapoor and Fanny Potkin
April 18, 2019
Two months before this week’s presidential
election in Indonesia, prize-winning novelist Eka Kurniawan declared in an
opinion column that “the Islamists have already won”.
Unofficial results from Wednesday’s poll
show that incumbent President Joko Widodo was actually the winner and is set
for a second five-year term - but they also reveal a hardening bloc of
conservative Muslims who voted for his challenger.
Widodo’s commitment to pluralism in the
world’s largest Muslim-majority country may have narrowly won him the race. But
the Indonesia he must govern is now more polarized by religion, and he may
struggle to meet the demands of Muslim groups that backed him and fend off more
hardline Islamists who did not.
“In the short term, Widodo will have to
accommodate the opinions and interests of the Muslim-majority because, if the
majority feels insecure, it is difficult to protect minorities,” said Achmad
Sukarsono, a political analyst with Control Risks.
“This is just being pro-people. It doesn’t
mean Indonesia will turn into Saudi Arabia or that the country will go straight
to amputating a hand for theft.”
While nearly 90 percent of Indonesians are
Muslim, the country is officially secular and is home to sizeable Hindu,
Christian, Buddhist and other minorities.
Some fear Indonesia’s tradition of
religious tolerance is now at risk, however, as conservative interpretations of
Islam become more popular. Among myriad measures of this, demand for Sharia
finance is growing and more women are covering their heads or donning full
veils in public.
Widodo’s rival, former military general
Prabowo Subianto, buttressed his challenge by forging an alliance with hardline
Islamist groups and religious parties to tap into this trend.
Unofficial results show that not only did
Prabowo maintain support in three conservative strongholds - Aceh, West Java
and West Sumatra - he won four more provinces that had gone to the incumbent
when he ran against him in 2014. These provinces are widely seen as among the
country’s most conservative because they have introduced sharia-based by-laws
and their demographic make-up is more than 97 percent Muslim.
Analysts say such divisions are here to
“This election has produced a more divided
political map,” said Eve Warburton, a research fellow at Australian National
University. “When Widodo and Prabowo are no longer on the front line, divisions
may mellow but they will not disappear.”
Prabowo has complained of widespread
cheating and is threatening to contest the results.
Many of the hardline Islamist clerics and
groups backing Prabowo’s presidential bid were the same as those who in 2016
and 2017 led mass protests to topple the ethnic-Chinese, Christian governor of
Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a one-time close ally of the president.
Widodo, at risk of appearing anti-Islam,
distanced himself from Purnama, who was eventually jailed for blasphemy. He
also launched a systematic campaign to woo the country’s largest moderate
Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), and to appeal to Muslim voters by
appearing ‘more Islamic’ himself.
But the president shocked more moderate and
progressive supporters when he chose as his running mate NU scholar Ma’ruf
Amin. As chairman of the Indonesia Clerics Council in 2016, Amin issued a fatwa
banning Muslims from joining Christmas mass, and his testimony helped convict
Nonetheless, Amin helped in the eyes of
some voters to remove any doubt about Widodo’s commitment to Islam and
neutralize the overall threat to Indonesia’s official secularity from groups
gunning for an Islamic state.
One presidential aide, who spoke on
condition of anonymity, said that as vice president, Amin, who is an expert on
Islamic finance, was expected to “have an important role, particularly on
religious issues and policies”.
But aides are confident of Widodo’s ability
to “handle” the demands of religious groups that helped propel him to victory.
“The president can embrace (the religious
forces) with all kinds of social and economic efforts, but at the same time he
will be forceful to reject their agenda to change the ‘Pancasila’ in any way,”
the aide said, referring to the country’s secular ideology.
“Victory for Moderate Islam”
Hardline groups that were once on the
fringes of Indonesian politics, most notably the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI),
have increasingly muscled their way into the mainstream and arguably provide a
political voice for conservative Indonesian Muslims.
The FPI and similar groups call for an
Islamic state, with Islamic law for all Muslims in the country.
That may be popular with many voters -
according to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Centre, 72 percent of Muslims
favour making Sharia the official law.
But for prominent moderate Muslim figure
and Widodo campaign adviser Yenny Wahid, the election nonetheless represents a
victory for moderate Islam.
“Widodo will be bolder now than before in
sealing off space that Islamists have tried to occupy in politics and social
life,” she told Reuters. “It is time now for moderate Muslims to consolidate
based on the election win.”
Additional reporting by Tom Allard;
Editing by Alex Richardson