A dangerous gamble

Pallavi Aiyar  

Indonesian elections have a history of generating strange bedfellows. Yet, even by Indonesia’s flexible standards, President Joko Widodo’s recent announcement of his running mate for the 2019 general elections is disappointing, if not altogether surprising. His pick, Ma’ruf Amin, is an Islamic cleric with the kind of anti-liberal record that is antithetical to what the Indonesian President was once thought to stand for.

When Jokowi (as Mr. Widodo is usually referred to) came to international attention after winning a bitterly contested presidential contest in 2014, he was a genuine political outsider who had benefited from a wave of anti-corruption sentiment.

At that point his political career had spanned less than a decade, first as Mayor of a medium-sized city, Solo, and later as Governor of the national capital, Jakarta. Mr. Widodo stood out for his humility in a country where political elites are not known for it, as well as for his honesty and liberalism.

This last quality was largely an imputed one, less to do with his track record and more with his choice for running mate in the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial poll: Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Ahok, as Mr. Purnama is popularly nicknamed, is an ethnic Chinese Christian from the northern island of Sumatra, who operated in a political context dominated by Muslims from the populous island of Java. Mr. Widodo’s choice of Ahok as Jakarta’s Vice-Governor had signalled a decision to eschew identity politics in favour of policies focussed on clean government and economic development.

Four years down the line, Ahok is languishing in jail on blasphemy charges — and Mr. Widodo’s Vice-Presidential pick, Mr. Amin, helped put him there.

Centre of power

Mr. Amin is a powerful figure in Indonesia’s religious landscape. He is the spiritual leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the nation’s largest Islamic organisation that counts tens of millions among its followers. He is also the head of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), an umbrella organisation that advises the government on religious matters. Under Mr. Amin’s leadership, the MUI has issued a number of fatwas against minority groups that it considers to be heretical, like the Ahmadiyya and Shia communities.

The cleric is also a firm supporter of the blasphemy law under which Ahok was eventually convicted, and testified against him at his trial last year.

The ‘blasphemy’ consisted of telling voters that they shouldn’t be duped by religious leaders who misuse a Koranic to justify claims that Muslims should not have non-Muslim leaders.

Mr. Widodo’s choice of Mr. Amin as running mate reflects in part the delicate compromises necessary between the various factions of the unwieldy political coalition that supports him. But most of all it is a bulwark against accusations of impiety, a charge that, as Ahok’s fate proves, can blow up even the most popular politician’s career. Mr. Widodo’s lack of a strong Islamic profile has always been his political Achilles heel, a vulnerability exploited by his opponents in the past.

Over the years, the influence of religion in Indonesian politics has increased sharply, having been the deciding factor in last year’s elections for Jakarta’s governor (which Ahok lost).

Since coming to power, Mr. Widodo’s actions have revealed him to be more shrewd and practical than idealistic. He has made a series of compromises to accommodate the complex demands of his varied political backers. One example was his nomination of Budi Gunawan, an allegedly corrupt former aide to his political patron, Megawati Sukarnoputri, as Indonesia’s police chief (he was later dropped as Jokowi’s nominee and eventually sworn in as deputy instead).

No radical moves

In his term in office, Mr. Widodo has emerged as a tinkerer who makes subtle reforms where possible, rather than a revolutionary set on system-overhaul. In a country as diverse and fractured as Indonesia, this strategy has its advantages. It’s no easy task to juggle the expectations of a moderate base, increasingly powerful conservative Islamists, power-hungry coalition partners and the military. Mr. Widodo, with his strong approval ratings in opinion polls, has performed this balancing act with considerable skill.

Yet, there is a fine line between tactical compromise and rank opportunism. And the genie of identity politics once out of the bottle may prove impossible to put back in. Picking Mr. Amin as his running mate could help him win the election, but it is a dangerous gamble for the future of a country that has so far been a moderate beacon in an expanding sea of religious extremism.

Pallavi Aiyar has reported from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. She is a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum