Indonesian elections: Conservatism versus moderation

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (R), who is running for a second term, hugs presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto during a peace declaration for the general election campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta on September 23, 2018.

Indonesia’s coming election has its heavy-metal-fan president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo - widely perceived as a moderate Muslim - in one corner and Prabowo Subianto, a former lieutenant general, in the other. This is the second time they will go head to head since 2014 when Prabowo held the support of the conservative Muslims in the country.

But something integral has changed this time around.

For the coming 2019 election, Jokowi and Prabowo seem to have traded strategies and this is most apparent in their respective choices for running mate. Jokowi has chosen conservative 75-year-old cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate, whereas Prabowo has chosen Sandiaga Uno, who is the deputy governor of Jakarta and is seen as a moderate and wealthy businessman. Jokowi’s running mate in 2014, Jusuf Kalla, was also a businessman.

The choices provide a stark contrast to the 2014 election where Jokowi won with a slim majority. The question is what are Jokowi and Prabowo thinking?

Lessons from the past

Observers mostly agree that campaigning for the 2014 presidential election was mired by one of the worst smear tactics the country has ever seen with Jokowi being the prime target.

Social media and tabloid papers attacked Jokowi relentlessly, throwing allegations such as his mother was an activist with the banned Indonesian Communist Party at him. Some groups like the Forum of Islamic Society (Forum Ummat Islam) even went as far as saying that it was forbidden for Muslims to vote for Jokowi.

The largest smear campaign came from a tabloid aimed at discrediting Jokowi and was circulated among Islamic boarding schools in Java. People's Torch (Obor Rakyat) described Jokowi as a non-Muslim of Chinese descent, corrupt and just a "puppet candidate" of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Despite the castigation, Jokowi went on to win the presidential election with the narrowest of margins in Indonesia’s free elections history. The General Elections Commission gave Jokowi a victory of 53.1 percent of the vote (representing 70.9 million voters), to Prabowo's 46.8 percent (62.5 million votes). The two previous elections, in 2004 and 2009, had been landslide victories for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The election showed that despite ultra-conservatism, the majority of Indonesians chose a moderate man, known also for his love of heavy metal groups like Metallica and Megadeth, donning a black Napalm Death T-shirt and flashing the "devil's horns" hand sign. Prabowo noticed this too.

Source: ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute

Rise of Islamic conservatism

Fast forward to today, and the situation in Indonesia looks like it has tipped in favour of the conservatives. A survey commissioned by the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute last year seems to indicate that conservative Islam is on the rise.

The survey found that an overwhelming 91 percent of Muslim respondents think there will be various benefits to the implementation of Syariah law in the country, with 67 percent saying the most important benefit will be safeguarding the moral fabric of society. Only a mere nine percent of respondents believe the benefits of Islamic law “would be very limited or null”.

“In other words, Syariah law is seen, not so much as the imposition of a certain socio-legal system, but as a measure for safeguarding moral values in society,” wrote Diego Fossati, Hui Yew-Foong and Siwage Dharma Negara, the authors of the research.

The survey also found that 63 percent of Indonesians support punishing blasphemy against Islam. Of these, 58 percent also felt it important to vote a Muslim leader into office. Meanwhile, 82 percent considered the wearing of the hijab or Islamic headscarf an important outward sign of Islamic religiosity for women.

The survey was conducted across all 34 Indonesian provinces between 20 and 30 May 2017 and involved a sample size of 1,620 respondents.

Perhaps Jokowi took note of this and decided to choose Ma’ruf as his running mate. It could also be that Jokowi wanted to avoid any smear campaigning against him which would now seem less likely with Ma’ruf by his side.

However, another interesting discovery regarding the survey was that respondents felt the greatest challenges to Islam are not external, such as Christianisation or non-Muslim leaders becoming too powerful, but rather, factors that challenge the internal integrity of Islam, such as divisive debates and Islamic leaders’ involvement in politics. This could also indicate why Jokowi won in 2014 with businessman Jusuf at his side while Prabowo lost with Muhammad Hatta Rajasa - a member of the National Mandate Party (PAN), a moderate Islamic party – on his.

While observers and analysts largely agree that Islam will take on a more conservative image in the future, lessons from the past have told a different story. The coming election will reveal whether the experts got it right or not. However, it is ultimately the Indonesians themselves who will make the final call.

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