Widodo Puts Islam Front and Center Ahead of Polls

Indonesian leader’s running mate Islamic cleric has neutralized an extremist threat to his campaign, though critics say to the detriment of issues more crucial to voters

To no one’s surprise, conservative cleric Ma’ruf Amin, the 75-year-old running mate forced on President Joko Widodo at the nomination deadline, is proving to be little more than a passenger as Indonesia edges toward simultaneous legislative and presidential elections in April.

Amin is likely to be even more so if Widodo is re-elected, although minorities fret over what influence he might try to bring to bear on such issues as the potentially disastrous Halal Bill – or worse, if something ever happens to a seemingly healthy president.

In the end, analysts may argue that although Amin won’t likely win Widodo any more votes, he at least has arrested a threatened deterioration in support among the conservative Islamic community, which drove the president to seek a running mate with religious credentials in the first place.

For some, Amin has already served his purpose by dividing the so-called 212 Movement, the conservative coalition which brought down Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama in early 2017 and which had set its extremist sights on Widodo as well.

Amin helped found the protest movement, then saying its job was done after Purnama was jailed for blasphemy, he walked away. He now claims to regret sending the popular governor to prison, explaining in self-serving piety that the law was simply following its course.

Dr Ma'ruf Amin, the running mate of President Joko Widodo in the upcoming election in Indonesia. He is chairman of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) and former supreme leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world's biggest Muslim organisation.

Ma’ruf Amin in an October 18, 2018 file photo. Photo: AFP Forum

For all that, the 212 Movement already appeared to be disintegrating, initially losing hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Shihab, who fled into self-exile in Saudi Arabia in mid-2017 to avoid criminal charges he claimed were politically-inspired.

Even spokesman Kapitra Ampera, once an attorney for Shihab and also Tommy Suharto, ex-president Suharto’s youngest son, has left to become a parliamentary candidate for Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) in the southern Sumatran province in Riau.

Azyumardi Azra, head of the graduate school at Indonesia’s State Islamic University, asserts that 212 – named after a mass anti-Purnama rally in Jakarta on December 2, 2016 – was more a political movement than a religious one and was always destined to drift apart.

For all the concerns at the time, it was difficult to see how the factors that conspired to drag down an ethnic Chinese Christian governor in the cauldron of the country’s biggest city could be replicated across a much wider national stage.

As the former president of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s and the world’s largest Muslim organization, and also the serving chairman of the influential Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the nation’s top clerical body, Amin may have unmatched religious credentials.

Indonesian Muslims hold dawn prayers on December 12, 2016, one day before Jakarta's Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama's first trial as some Islamic groups have vowed to maintain pressure until he is prosecuted for blasphemy. The high-profile case has emboldened hardline groups and stoked fears of growing intolerance in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation. Photo: AFP / Kahfi Syaban Nasuti

Indonesian Muslims hold dawn prayers in Jakarta on December 12, 2016. Photo: AFP/Kahfi Syaban Nasuti

But the son of a little-known west Java religious scholar has seen his career shaped as much by his prowess as an Islamic politician as by his expertise in Islamic law. With that has come a deft ability to shift with the political winds.

Bringing together disparate Islamic groups and parties earned Amin a local leadership role in NU, which now boasts 45 million card-carrying members, and eventually a seat in the Jakarta provincial assembly in 1971, a position he held for the next 11 years.

The strongman Suharto regime removed him as a prospective national candidate for the United Development Party (PPP), the party NU was forced to amalgamate with in 1973, and it was not until the long-serving president’s fall in 1998 that Amin returned to practical politics.

Amin won a seat for NU’s newly formed National Awakening Party (PKB) in the first post-Suharto democratic elections in 1999, but he quit parliament in 2004 after a falling out with pluralist ex-president Abdurrahman Wahid, a descendent of one of NU’s founders.

Azra calls Amin an opportunist who, as an adviser to ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was responsible for pushing a succession of edicts and policies that led to an alarming slide in Indonesia’s reputation for religious tolerance between 2008 and 2014.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (R) and his running mate Ma'ruf Amin (2nd L) take part in a peace declaration for the general election campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta on September 23, 2018. - Campaigning for Indonesia's presidential election in April kicked off on September 23, pitting incumbent Joko Widodo against a former military general in the race to lead the world's third-biggest democracy. (Photo by Adek BERRY / AFP)

President Joko Widodo (R) and his running mate Ma’ruf Amin (2nd L) take part in a peace declaration for the general election campaign at the National Monument, Jakarta, September 23, 2018.  Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Indonesians are intrigued how the man who habitually wears sandals and sarongs will tackle economic and other worldly matters in planned televised debates with millennial tycoon Sandiaga Uno, opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto’s running mate.

Certainly, he will be a persuasive voice against campaigners seeking to cast Widodo as un-Islamic and a closet communist, but most polls show he has had little overall impact on Widodo’s popularity, which remains above 50% compared with Prabowo’s 28-29% in opinion polls.

Indeed, in one recent survey Widodo actually loses 1.5% with Amin on board, while among younger voters the gap is 8-10%. But that belies other political realities, particularly in the two bastions of Islamic conservatism – Banten and neighboring West Java, Indonesia’s most populous province.

Widodo lost heavily there in 2014, two of five provinces where rival Prabowo emerged triumphant. In Banten, Amin’s home province, Widodo currently trails 58.7% to 39% and may slip even further depending on his response to the recent Krakatau tsunami disaster.

But Amin is little known in Banten’s staid Islamic community. He left there with his parents at an early age to study at the influential Tebuiring boarding school in Jombang, East Java, which was established by NU founder Hasyim Asy’ari in the late 1890s.

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (L) and his running mate Sandiaga Uno gesture as they attend a peace declaration for the upcoming general election campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta on September 23, 2018. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (L) and his running mate Sandiaga Uno at a peace declaration for the upcoming general election campaign at the National Monument, Jakarta, September 23, 2018. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

In the main battleground of West Java, where the president is determined to win, different political factors, including the support this time of the second-ranked Golkar Party and also reformist provincial governor Ridwan Kamil, a Widodo ally, give the incumbent a narrow lead.

Widodo began courting Amin soon after the Purnama affair wound down, but he did not consider him as a running mate until his allies in the ruling coalition rejected his preferred choice, former Constitutional Court chief justice Mohammad Mahfud MD, who they feared had political ambitions of his own.

Leading that revolt were PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, who sees her daughter, human development coordinating minister Puan Maharani, 45, as a prospective candidate in 2024, and ambitious PKB chairman Muhaimin Iskander, 52, deputy head of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR).

Ironically, while Prabowo has so far steered clear of primordial issues, perhaps in part because of the money he needs from the ethnic Chinese business community for his cash-strapped campaign, it is the Widodo government which has taken the offensive.

During a national meeting last November, the Indonesian Mosque Council (IMC), headed for a second five-year term by Vice-President Jusuf Kalla, issued an edict that the country’s 800,000 mosques should not be used for political activities.

While Azra doubts its ability to enforce the directive, it is a clear effort to stop places of worship from becoming points of opposition mobilization, as they were during the anti-Purnama campaign when Kalla, ironically enough and to Widodo’s chagrin, supported winning candidate Anies Baswedan.

Indonesian Islamist groups rally outside the parliament calling for the government to suspend the Christian governor of the captial and for the courts to convict him of blasphemy, in Jakarta, Indonesia February 21, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Wahyu Putro A/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. - RTSZL0M

Islamist groups rally against then Christian governor Basuki Purnama in Jakarta, February 21, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto via AFP Forum/Wahyu Putro A

Although it attracted little media attention when he was appointed early last year, IMC’s panel of experts includes State Intelligence Agency (BIN) director Budi Gunawan, a member of Megawati’s inner circle since he served as her police adjutant.

BIN issued a report at the time of the November meeting warning that 41 mosques in one Jakarta neighborhood alone were preaching extremism and religious intolerance to worshippers, many of whom were government workers.

More recently, PKB – one of the six parties making up the government coalition – expressed support for a suggestion from doctrinaire Acehnese clerics for the presidential candidates to undergo a Koranic recitation test, which Prabowo might struggle with as the only Muslim in a family of Christians.

What worries critics is that the preoccupation with religion ignores the fact that elections should be fought on issues that affect the everyday life of Indonesians, who still pay more for rice than any other Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) citizen and have now been told that their tsunami warning system has fallen into disrepair.

Amin seems to encapsulate all that, a prospective vice-president whose real-world experience is confined to Islamic banking and little else.  Azra said: “People are worried not only about his health [he has heart problems and tires easily], but his lack of expertise in anything outside religion.” Atimes*


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