Victory could be slipping away from Jokowi

Incumbent Indonesian president Joko Widodo speaks onstage during an election rally on the final day of campaigning in Jakarta on 13 April, 2019. Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians gathered at Jakarta's main stadium to attend the last rally of President Joko Widodo. (Bay Ismoyo / AFP Photo)

Joko Widodo is one of Indonesia’s most devoted crusaders against fake news, and for good reason: It’s personal.

The Indonesian president known as Jokowi, who’s campaigning for a second five-year term, has sought to keep voters focused on his track record of infrastructure building, tax reform and lower food prices. But social media-driven rumours – that he isn’t a pious Muslim, that he sympathises with the banned Communist party, that he’s of Chinese descent – are proving difficult to shake in the final days leading up to the 17 April poll.

Under Jokowi, Indonesia has grown into a trillion-dollar economy, inflation has more than halved and he’s beaten the target to create 10 million jobs in the first five-year term. But his double-digit lead has narrowed in recent weeks, and religion remains a wild card in his bid to defeat former army commando Prabowo Subianto to head the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority country.

Questions of religious identity have become an increasing political issue in Indonesia, which was founded on secular ideals to unite a diverse archipelago stretching across three time zones. While no major policy shifts are expected if Jokowi wins a second term, analysts see the possibility that Indonesia could take steps such as outlawing same-sex relations. Nearby Brunei recently introduced Islamic laws that punish gay sex and adultery by stoning offenders to death.

Ahead of this election, Jokowi sought to bolster his religious credentials by picking Ma’ruf Amin, the country’s most senior Islamic cleric, as his running mate. The move was seen as a reaction to the 2017 Jakarta governor election, when a Chinese-Christian political ally of Jokowi lost amid claims he insulted Islam.

Growing conservatism

While the poisonous atmosphere of 2017 has yet to materialise in the presidential election, Jokowi’s opponents are raising questions about his faith in social media and door-to-door campaigns, said Douglas Ramage, managing director of Bower Group Asia in Indonesia.

“The social conservatism propelled by the majority community is here to stay irrespective of who wins the election,” Ramage said. “If Jokowi wins, he will have a senior cleric as his vice president and one could expect him to exert some influence on policies that reflect the growing preference for conservatism among Indonesian middle class.”

Conservative Islamic groups, who dislike Jokowi’s secular policies and his crackdown against terrorist groups, have rallied behind his opponent Prabowo, as Subianto is popularly known. The groups, who demand the adoption of Shariah rules in the secular country, accuse Jokowi’s administration of unfairly detaining some Islamic clerics for criticising the government. Jokowi has dismissed the allegations as baseless, but they threaten to stir tensions.

“I wanted to let the rumours die naturally, but since some people believe them, I have to make a clarification,” Jokowi told residents of an Islamic boarding school in Rembang in Central Java on 1 February. The president said his record should not be in question: he holds regular meetings with clerics in his office and has declared a national day in honour of Islamic students.

He revisited the issue again on 23 March, urging people to combat fake news: “I need to clear the allegations because according to a survey as many as nine million people believe them.”

On Saturday, the president called for unity as the seven-month long election campaign drew to a close. Addressing a huge gathering of his supporters in Jakarta, Jokowi urged Indonesians, irrespective of their ethnic, cultural and religious differences, to remain committed to protecting the nation’s cohesiveness.

Jobs deficit

While the choice of Amin was seen as politically expedient in a country of 263 million people that’s roughly 90 percent Muslim, he has struggled to match up the charisma of Prabowo’s pick for vice president, Sandiaga Uno, a former private equity tycoon. Prabowo’s party was supported by powerful Islamic groups in the 2017 Jakarta governor election.

Still, disaffection with Jokowi stretches beyond questions over his beliefs.

After sweeping into the office on his common-man image and proven administrative skills as the former mayor of the Central Java city of Solo, he’s now facing growing dissatisfaction among the middle-class for his failure to lift economic growth to seven percent – a key promise of his 2014 campaign.

Had he reached that target, it would have created “decent employment,” said Muhamad Chatib Basri, a former finance minister. While the national unemployment rate has fallen to a two-decade low, more and more educated youth are finding it difficult to land well-paid jobs, he said.

Eradicating poverty

A growth rate of over five percent amid a tough and weakening global economy was creditable, Jokowi said Saturday, citing his government’s success in reducing poverty and unemployment levels.

“We will make sure our economy is stronger in the next five years,” Jokowi said. “We have to make sure our lives will be better in the next five years compared to now. There will be no people left below the poverty line. All of us have to advance.”

His priorities on foreign policy have yet to materialise.

"We have few indications as of yet as to how Jokowi’s foreign policy might change in a second term," said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow on Southeast Asian politics at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "I do not think that Jokowi’s selection of Ma’ruf Amin will have any effect on Indonesia’s relations with countries in the region."

Muslim Indonesians had become more conservative over issues such as standards of dress over the last 20 years, Connelly said. But a recent survey shows "Muslims have also quietly become more tolerant on socio-cultural questions, like whether they are happy to have Christian neighbours or to have a church built in their neighbourhood."

Jokowi has taken note of the urban disenchantment and has promised to focus more on providing jobs that can meet the aspirations of the youth.

Prabowo supporters

Still, if he loses, it will likely be because a large number of Muslims opted to vote against Jokowi because top religious figures have been targeted for criticising the government, said Rizal Ramli, a former minister in Jokowi’s cabinet and an outspoken critic of the president’s economic policies.

"Prabowo supporters are relentless and very zealous in promoting Jokowi as a disaster for religious voters while promoting Prabowo as a good Muslim who will promote Islamic interests in Indonesia," said Alexander Arifianto, research fellow with the Indonesia Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. "This election will be a nail biter. It will be very close and either one could win." - Bloomberg