Jakarta Globe | Insight
Members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Pancasila Front Group burn flags they claim to be symbols of the Indonesian Communist Party in April 2016. (Antara Photo/Didik Suhartono)

Fears of Muslim Identity Politics in 2019 Presidential Election

Jakarta. Muslim identity politics — when Muslim groups form exclusive political alliances and move away from traditional broad-based party politics — may come back to haunt the next presidential election in Indonesia in 2019, after politicians and hardline Muslim leaders used it as a stick to beat Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in April.

Ahok, a Christian of Chinese descent and close ally of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, was sentenced to two years in May for committing blasphemy against Islam. Ahok was accused of insulting a verse in the Koran when he pointed out that his political rivals had used it to discredit him.

The blasphemy case was seen as a test for diversity and democracy in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority country. Indonesia has a secular constitution but since the fall of the authoritarian New Order regime in 1998 had allowed some regions to adopt Islamic law.

Muslim identity politics, as it has been used by the country’s politicians and hardline Muslim groups, tends to stoke ethnic and religious sentiment. Authorities now see it as a threat to Indonesia’s state ideology, the five-tenet Pancasila, the first of which states “belief in one God,” but that overall guarantees all citizens the right to worship any of the six religions officially recognized by the state.

The six officially recognized religions in Indonesia are: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

Over the years, politicians have been manipulating ethno-religious sentiment to gain votes, turning a blind eye to criticism that the move is unprofessional and unethical.

“Ethno-religious sentiment affects the decision of Indonesian voters, it’s very relevant here,” said Arizka Warganegara, a political analyst from Lampung University and a doctoral researcher at University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, in a report published by the Jakarta Globe in February.

“Ethno-religious sentiment is also a big factor with voters in India, Malaysia and also in America  look what happened with [Donald] Trump. Voters need to be educated to be more rational and mature,” he added.

According to Keith Loveard, a Jakarta-based risk analyst who writes for the Concord Review, many Indonesian Muslims may very well throw their support behind a fellow Muslim as a leader, but historically they have nevertheless been quite averse to the idea of an Islamic state.

“Every step since independence, they say they don’t want an Islamic state. And I’m not convinced that proportion of voters has changed to any great degree,” Loveard said in Jakarta on Sunday (13/08).

Siti Zuhro, a professor of politics at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, or LIPI, said President Jokowi may have to watch out for political opponents who may play the “religious versus nationalist values” card in the 2019 election.

“As long as politicians only care about winning, they will always pit nationalist and religious groups against each other [including in 2019],” Siti told the Jakarta Globe on Sunday.

“The question we need to ask should be, ‘Do the Indonesian people need a new leader or not?’ and not, ‘How many Muslim voters will it take to win you the election?'” she said.

Who Are Indonesia’s Muslim Constituents?

Though more than 88 percent of Indonesians claim themselves as Muslims, there are questions on whether they are actually united enough as a political bloc to influence the results of general and presidential elections in Indonesia.

Tobias Basuki, a researcher with the political think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Jakarta, said Islam as a political force in Indonesia is still finding its feet after more than 30 years of struggling to survive under Suharto’s repressive New Order regime.

“The only thing that hasn’t changed is how Islam as a political force in this country is still finding its ultimate form. Early studies suggest there was the Abangan [nominal, non-practising Muslims] versus Santri [devout Muslims] divide. But this seems to have disappeared in the post-Reformation era. Then there are Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah [the two biggest Muslim organizations in Indonesia], but they don’t belong to the same political bloc,” Tobias said.

According to the researcher, Muslim votes may very well decide who will become Indonesian president in the 2019 election, but to whom and how the votes are going to be cast is anybody’s guess.

“The big question is whether or not questions of identity, especially religious identity, and how Islamic values are going to be incorporated in political discussions, will have any bearing on how Indonesian Muslims cast their votes. I don’t have the answer at the moment. It was an important factor in the Jakarta [gubernatorial] election, but there are many variables to be considered nationwide,” Tobias said.

The researcher also pointed out the relative open-mindedness of Indonesia’s Muslim voters, compared to their counterparts in other Muslim-majority countries, Pakistan for example, saying that most Indonesian Muslims are “blank sheets.”

“The majority of Indonesian Muslim voters are ‘blank sheets.’ They don’t have a definite opinion on how Islam should be incorporated into politics. It’s different in other countries, like Pakistan, where accusations of blasphemy can easily start riots. Indonesian Muslims are much more open-minded, but recently politicians have been able to manipulate them using identity politics,” Tobias said.

Jokowi Should Keep Muslims Happy

Siti said President Jokowi will need to push policies that support the interests of Indonesian Muslims to curry favor with them in the 2019 election.

The president’s decision to disband Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, or HTI, a pan-Islamic, non-violent organization clamoring for the establishment of a caliphate, may have been a blunder with Muslim voters. But whether or not it is enough to turn them away from him is still unclear, according to Siti.

CSIS’s Tobias said disbanding HTI will not have much effect on President Jokowi’s chances at re-election, for the simple fact that most HTI members and sympathizers have always been anti-Jokowi in the first place.

“Many in the HTI have always opposed Jokowi. The more conservative and extreme Muslim groups since 2014 have always placed themselves as an opposition to Jokowi’s administration. To put it simply, they’re not his constituent,” Tobias said.

Tobias also had his own doubts about HTI’s ability to unite Muslims who sympathize with their cause.

“Can they mobilize their members and sympathizers to vote as one [against Jokowi]? That’s still a big question mark. So I don’t think disbanding the HTI will lose Jokowi that many votes in 2019,” he said.

The researcher also doubted if HTI members will remain loyal to the organization’s pro-caliphate ideology after its disbandment.

“I’m not sure what ex-HTI members will do after the ban. They were true ideologues. That’s why they were banned, because they really did believe in the idea of a caliphate. Other Muslim organizations like the FPI are more political. But I don’t know if those ex-HTI members will stay consistent with their ideology now that the government has banned them as a group,” Tobias said.

Meanwhile, Concord Review’s Loveard is of the opinion it would be hard to predict what Muslim voters would do in 2019 but claimed that among this group there is “an increasing level of orthodoxy.”

“Muslim voters are very hard to define. There are different versions of Muslim voters, you’ve got those who are determined that sharia law should apply, and that Indonesia should be an Islamic state. And then you’ve got other people who are “Islam KTP (non-practising Muslims),” Loveard said.

“From all the polling, it still doesn’t appear those who want an overtly Islamic state are that many in the majority. That said, there’s an increasing level of orthodoxy among Muslim population, where people are becoming more overtly Muslim,” he added.

Loveard also noted one obvious thing that will work in Jokowi’s favor come 2019: “Jokowi is not Ahok, he’s a Muslim, so he can’t be attacked on that.”

LIPI’s Siti pointed out Jokowi’s narrow victory in the 2014 election may spell bigger problems for him in 2019. “Jokowi won in 2014 by a small margin. If the same rival [former military strongman Prabowo Subianto] runs against him again in 2019, we should expect another tight finish,” she said.

Historically, the incumbent will have the upper hand when he or she seeks re-election, but Jokowi’s position will be weakened if he gives reasons for people to start complaining about his policies, she added.

“[Muslim] identity politics will play a bigger role if the government keeps making policies that marginalize Muslims,” Siti said.

“Jokowi’s greatest asset is his performance as president. If people are happy with what he’s done, he’ll be safe. But if not, he can expect a tough struggle,” Siti said.

Pre-Election Coalition Games

Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) chairman Prabowo recently met with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, former president and current chairman of the Democratic Party, at his house in Cikeas, just outside Jakarta.

The meeting, amid much fanfare, was interpreted as a sign that Gerindra and the Democratic Party may form a coalition to challenge Jokowi in the 2019 election.

Siti said such a coalition, though it may look good on paper, may not necessarily deliver the presidency to the two opposition parties.

“Our presidential election seems to pay no mind to which coalition the candidate belongs to. His personal qualities are still important, it’s what people look for. They don’t look at the party or the coalition backing him,” she added.

While Prabowo and Yudhoyono seem to be still working out a deal for a possible coalition, Jokowi, already backed by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), has also received support from five other political parties to seek re-election in 2019.

These five parties are the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura), the United Development Party (PPP), the Golkar Party, the National Democratic Party (Nasdem) and the Indonesian Unity Party (Perindo). Perindo’s leader, tycoon Hary Tanoesoedibjo, indicated in early August he may switch sides to Jokowi’s camp after nearly two years with Prabowo’s Red and White Coalition which, apart from Gerindra, also counts the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the Muslim-oriented Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) as its members.

Writing by M. Erawan