After several weeks of speculation, on 9 August, Indonesian President Joko Widodo finally announced 75-year-old Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate in the upcoming presidential elections. Jokowi officially announced Ma’ruf as his candidate for vice-president a day before political parties were required to shortlist names for the presidential race.
Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, is slated to hold its presidential elections in April next year. The elections will see a rematch of the 2014 race between Jokowi and former general Prabowo Subianto.
Ma’ruf’s selection as Jokowi’s running mate has surprised many observers considering his age and clerical background. However, his choice could prove to be key when Indonesia goes to the polls next year.
Who is Ma’ruf Amin?
In contrast to Prabowo’s running mate, Sandiaga Uno, who is the deputy governor of Jakarta and seen as a "moderate", Ma’ruf’s is often seen as a conservative Muslim cleric.
A scholar of Islam, many in Indonesia see Ma’ruf as one of the most influential Muslim figures in the country. He is currently the chair of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). The MUI is Indonesia’s top clerical body, comprising of Muslim groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. The body was founded in 1975 under the Suharto administration and has the authority to issue fatwas and consults the government on issues pertaining to the Muslim community. It also provides halal certification for products.
Aside from that, Ma’ruf is also the supreme leader of Nadhlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organisation in the country. He has also been involved to politics. During Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s time, Ma’ruf was a member of the Presidential Advisory Council.
Why Ma’ruf Amin?
Over the past few years, observers have claimed that Islam is beginning to play a much larger role in shaping the nation’s political discourse. The most obvious example of this is the loss and subsequent jailing of former Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama or Ahok in 2016. Many believe Ahok lost his gubernatorial seat to Anies Baswedan due to growing protests against Ahok’s alleged insulting of Islam.
In March, Indonesia made headlines in the international media for newly proposed amendments to the country’s national Criminal Code which could criminalise extramarital sex and same-sex relations. The proposed amendments reveal the conservative bent Indonesian politics has seen recently.
Kate Walton, a feminist activist based in Indonesia told The ASEAN Post earlier this year that most parliamentarians support the new amendments because they believe it will help them gain more votes in the upcoming elections.
“For many people, it is to do with the 2019 elections, with parties hoping that this populist move will encourage voters to vote for them for moral reasons,” Kate said.
Jokowi himself has been at the receiving end of personal attacks by hard-line Islamists. In the past, Jokowi has been accused of promoting liberal secularism and there were also rumours that he is secretly a Christian. Jokowi’s pick for vice-president shows that Jokowi is aware of the role that Islam plays in Indonesian politics. Choosing Ma’ruf is a tactical move to help sway more conservative voters to his camp as well as to bolster his Islamic credentials.
“Jokowi is aware how by not managing conservative Muslim sentiments, as witnessed during the Aksi Bela Islam protests of 2016 against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), will be politically costly for him,” wrote Dr Norshahril Saat, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
With the appointment of Ma’ruf, some observers are worried that this could be the end of Jokowi’s more moderate approach to Islam and that Ma’ruf would set the Islamic agenda for Jokowi’s administration in the likelihood of him winning.
Even Human Rights Watch have come out and raised their concerns that the appointment of Ma’ruf would impede Jokowi’s promise to improve human rights in Indonesia.
“Amin has been central to some of the most intolerant elements of Indonesian contemporary religious and political culture, so fear of the negative impact he could have on the rights and safety of religious and gender minorities is well founded,” said Phelim Kine, deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
As Jokowi looks likely to win the upcoming elections, the real challenge will come when Ma’ruf’s conservative Islam clashes with Jokowi’s more moderate version.