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Why identity politics in Indonesia is here to stay

Islamic identity politics has hardly been dealt a crippling blow by President Joko Widodo’s presumed win in the recent Indonesian elections. If anything, the 2019 presidential race saw both sides further playing up Islamic identity politics, with each often responding to moves by the other.

Party flags are seen during a campaign rally of President Joko Widodo at a stadium in Banten province in March. The author says that both the Widodo and Subianto camps pervasively used Islamic symbols of piety during their campaigns.

Party flags are seen during a campaign rally of President Joko Widodo at a stadium in Banten province in March. The author says that both the Widodo and Subianto camps pervasively used Islamic symbols of piety during their campaigns.

Pending the release of the official vote count of the recent Indonesian presidential election on May 20, incumbent Joko Widodo nevertheless looks set to have won a second term. Various unofficial quick-count tallies — which have proven reliable in the past — show him leading Prabowo Subianto by eight to 10 percentage points.

Jubilant, the director of Mr Widodo’s campaign volunteers Maman Imanulhaq claimed that a victory for Mr Widodo was also one for official state ideology Pancasila against “(Islamic) radicalism”.

While it is true that Mr Subianto was backed by hardline Islamic groups such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front — and his coalition consists of Islamic political parties such as the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) and the National Mandate Party (PAN) alongside the “nationalist” Gerindra — the picture may not be as simple as Mr Imannulhaq would have it.

Islamic identity politics has hardly been dealt a crippling blow by Mr Widodo’s presumed win in the presidential race. If anything, the 2019 presidential race saw both sides further playing up Islamic identity politics, with each often responding to moves by the other.

Notably, Mr Widodo chose a senior Muslim cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, in a bid to boost his Muslim credentials and secure the support of Nadhatul Ulema (NU), the country’s largest Muslim organisation.

Mr Widodo’s decision to throw in his lot with NU is part of the narrative that he supports “Islam Nusantara”, an inclusive and syncretic form of Islam practised by most within NU, especially in Java.

As Indonesian expert Edward Aspinall observed, in this year’s elections, NU successfully mobilised its supporters “to defend NU’s vision of pluralism and moderation, its traditional religious practices” against “Islamic hardliners” who adhere to a more puritan and Arabicised form of Islam.

While it was encouraging to see moderate Islam remain a political force, the inadvertent result was the pervasive use of Islamic symbols of piety by both sides, so much so that issues such as minority rights took a back seat throughout the campaign.

Nowhere was this more obvious than the adoption of Islamic identity politics by the Widodo camp.

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To further seal his alliance with NU, Mr Widodo pledged more funds for NU’s pesantren (religious boarding schools). His campaign team issued an ill-judged challenge that both presidential candidates be tested for their fluency in reciting the Quran.

Lastly, in what has now become de rigueur, the president performed the umrah at the end of his campaign.

These moves may in turn have fired up ultra-conservative Muslim voters and solidified their support for the most conservative Islamic party: PKS.

As the only party in Mr Subianto’s coalition to have rejected Pancasila as its ideological basis and openly campaigned for syariah, PKS did well in the legislative election.

Most quick counts put it as either the fifth or sixth best performing party with 8 to 9 per cent of the votes. This would represent considerable gains over the 6.78 per cent it garnered in the 2014 election.

Crossing the 8 per cent threshold for PKS would beat its former best record of 7.89 per cent in 2009.  

PKS chairman, Mardani Ali Sela, attributed his party’s unofficial electoral gains to its campaign promises, notably the “lifetime” driving licence for all Indonesians and the scrapping of annual road tax for motorcyclists. Currently, Indonesians have to renew their licence every five years.

In truth, while some voters might have been swayed by PKS’ economic pledges, others in areas known for Muslim conservatism likely bought into PKS’ use of syariah and Islam in its campaign, including a pledge by some candidates to legalise polygamy.

It is also possible that PKS was the beneficiary of defecting voters who supported other Islamic parties in 2014 like the United Development Party (PPP) and the Crescent and Moon Party (PBB), both of which saw their share of votes declining this year.

The drop for PPP is particularly significant, from 6.53 per cent in 2014 to 4.65 in 2019, as it barely made the parliamentary threshold of 4 per cent.

PPP, whose support base is conservative Muslims, was visibly split when its leadership decided to back Mr Widodo instead of Mr Subianto. It is likely some PPP voters decided to transfer their votes to PKS as a form of protest.

PKS may have also received an unexpected boost in support when it was singled out by the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), a new party which branded itself as anti-syariah and anti-polygamy, in the latter’s campaign themes.

Just before the elections, PSI chairman Grace Natalie vowed against entering any coalition with PKS, be it in national, provincial or municipal parliament.

Although PSI ended up failing to make the parliamentary threshold of 4 per cent for the national parliament, it won enough votes to sit in several regional and municipal councils, such as Jakarta and Surabaya, suggesting an exclusively urban basis of support for the party.

While the electoral support for PSI may represent an embryonic counter-movement against Islamic identity politics, it is safe to say that it is only limited to urban areas for the moment.

Quick-count tallies for the last three elections show no diminishing support for Islamic parties in favour of more secular ones.

In this year’s election, the combined vote for all the Islamic parties amounts to roughly 30 per cent, almost the same as in 2014. Support for Islamic parties has even risen in the last two elections. In 2009, Islamic parties garnered roughly 25 per cent of the votes altogether.

Perhaps this is not surprising. The 2018 public poll by Spectator Index, after all, claims that 93 percent of Indonesians think religion is very important.  

The last few years have also seen Islamic identity in Indonesian politics become a normative and pervasive theme.

In all likelihood, populist Islamic identity will remain a potent force in Mr Widodo’s second and last term.

Regrettably, this will be at the expense of secular and liberal ideals and the rights of Indonesia’s minority groups.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Johannes Nugroho is a writer and political analyst from Surabaya whose commentaries have appeared in the Jakarta Post and Jakarta Globe since the 1990s. He is currently working on his first novel set around the May 1998 riots in Indonesia.

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