Minorities matter in Indonesia’s election

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto delivers his speech during a campaign rally at the Gelora Bung Karno stadium in Jakarta on 7 April, 2019. (Adek Berry / AFP Photo)

By now, most of the world already knows that Indonesia is home to the largest Muslim demographic in the world, housing approximately 229 million Muslims. This, however, is especially pertinent considering the fact that Indonesia is about to face its largest election in a week from today on 17 April.

Several political pundits as well as human rights advocates have already expressed worry regarding a rising conservatism in the country. With 87.2 percent of its total population (about 263 million people) being Muslims, it is completely understandable that the country’s politics would take an Islamic slant.  Even the youth have shown signs that they are becoming increasingly Islamic, for better or worse, with the rise of the Hijrah (migration) movement. The ASEAN Post wrote about this particular movement not too long ago.

In spite of being the largest Muslim democracy in the world, Indonesia is not home to Muslims alone. Indonesia, is the fourth most populous country in the world according to the United States (US) Census Bureau and so it should not come as a surprise that despite the fact that Christians – the second largest religious group in the country – only make up about 10.2 percent of the local population, that is still the equivalent of approximately 27 million people. But do their votes count?

The Christian vote

Statistics on how many Christians voted in Indonesia’s previous elections are unavailable. Part and parcel of a democracy is that votes are done anonymously. But there are key indicators which could point to the importance of the Christian vote.

First is the fact that voter turnout has been decreasing consistently since as far back as 2004. A lower number of voters turning up at the ballot box could mean that there are even less Christians turning up to vote, but it definitely means that there are even less Muslims doing so. In the last election, voter turnout was a mere 69.9 percent.

Source: Various

Secondly are the 32 organisations calling for people to abstain from voting under the #SayaGolput movement. Recent reports revealed that an increasingly vocal group of Indonesians are pledging to abstain or cast a blank vote – known as golput – at the presidential election. This, apparently, even includes one-time supporters of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who say they are disenchanted with what they perceive as his failure to take concrete steps in promoting human rights. Meanwhile, they also do not believe that Jokowi’s challenger, Prabowo Subianto, a former army general who has been accused of human rights abuses during his military stint, will be much better.

Thirdly, the Indonesian bishops’ conference and other church organisations have done the opposite and have, instead, called on young Catholics not to miss their chance to vote in the upcoming elections at a recent event which included singing, dancing and comedy. The fact that elections will take place during Holy Week with Good Friday falling on 19 April adds to the significance.

According to media reports, Aretas Batan Hianglerak, a 17-year-old first-time voter from Rangkasbitung, near Bogor said the event helped convince him to go out and cast his ballot.  

“We must exercise our right to vote wisely. It only takes five minutes at a polling station, but this determines our future for the next five years,” he said.

Christians, as Indonesia’s minority, would certainly be more interested in voting knowing that they have a chance at determining their future as a minority in the country.

Rhetoric isn’t enough

While Indonesia’s minorities are facing a country that is seeing a rise in Islamic conservatism, it does not mean that they are so blinded by worry and alarm that they aren’t able to think rationally. A recent report revealed that despite a fiery speech at a huge campaign rally on Sunday where Prabowo vowed that all citizens would be treated equally if he was elected president on 17 April, minority groups were unimpressed.

“Our teachers, our Islamic clerics have always taught us that Indonesia’s Islam is one that brings good to all things in the universe. Our Islam is one of peace and one that respects all religions, races, and ethnicities,” Prabowo told more than 110,000 supporters who packed Jakarta’s cavernous Bung Karno National Stadium.

Indonesia’s minorities, however, are unable to shake the fact that Prabowo’s support base includes conservative Islamic groups that have persecuted Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, and oppose lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights.

“Marginalised groups like us can’t pin our hopes on either candidate, let alone the Prabowo camp, which is supported by hard-line groups. We have to fend for ourselves,” a spokesman for the Ahmadiyah Indonesia Congregation, Yendra Budiana told a local news portal.

Yendra said 114 Ahmadis who were expelled from their homes on Lombok island in 2006 still lived in a temporary shelter. An Ahmadi mosque in Depok near Jakarta has not reopened after it was forcibly closed by local officials in 2017, he added.

The Christian vote looks like one that will matter in the coming election. Perhaps not as much as the Muslim vote but it will still matter. Both, Jokowi and Prabowo should know that rhetoric will not be enough to sway that portion of the voters and so if the Christian voters are to be won over, it must be done with concrete promises and assurances that minorities in Indonesia will not be treated as badly as how the Ahmadi were. 

Related articles:

Will Indonesians even bother to vote?

Indonesia’s youth want more Islam