Islam Is the Winning Ticket in Indonesia
Politics has turned religious in the world's biggest Muslim nation — but that's part of democracy too.
Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesia’s president since 2014, and most likely until 2024, had every reason to gloat on Wednesday afternoon. By 3 p.m., after quick-count polls from around 160 million voters had been processed, he had nearly a 10 percent lead over his opponent, the former general Prabowo Subianto. But he passed up the chance to call a quick victory. Emerging to a cheering crowd of thousands at the Djakarta Theatre, wearing a simple white shirt, he told everyone to be patient and wait for official results from the General Elections Commission, which could take several more days.
It was a perfect distillation of the confident, positive tone of his re-election campaign this year, against the exact same rival he faced in his first victory in 2014. Jokowi is Indonesia’s first president without an elite or military background, and he made his name on technocratic improvements, economic development, and incremental progress—apparently a winning formula.
Meanwhile, his opponent, Prabowo, who looks likely to have now lost his third straight federal election, immediately contested the results and claimed voter fraud.
“Jokowi was an easygoing but upbeat campaigner, appealing to Indonesians’ sense of optimism in a country where annual GDP growth is above 5 percent and 40 percent of the population are under 25,” said Aaron Connelly a research fellow focusing on Southeast Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. . “He drew an explicit contrast with Prabowo’s pessimism,” which railed against foreign investment in Indonesian resources and much more. “In the end, optimism won out.”
But despite his technocratic approach, Jokowi made some considerable concessions to religious conservatives as part of his course to a likely re-election. For his running mate, he chose Maruf Amin, the country’s top Muslim cleric, whose history of intolerance includes attacks on Shiites, Ahmadiyya Muslims, LGBTQ people, and more. Jokowi’s surprise pick of Maruf last year was widely seen as bending the knee to religious voters in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country after they showed their strength in numbers in 2017, when hard-line Islamist protests unseated Jakarta’s Christian governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, for accused blasphemy against Islam. In the post-Ahok political climate, Jokowi could take no chances. In his first campaign, he was accused of not being a real Muslim and smeared as a crypto-communist.
The choice of Maruf shows how quickly Islamic credentials have become central to authority and credibility in Indonesian politics since the Ahok affair. Indonesia was never a secular nation—its constitution specifically protects six faiths, and atheism is illegal—but neither was religious sectarianism very important to national politics. Religious difference was suppressed under the military dictatorship of Suharto from 1967 through 1998, seen as a danger to social harmony and a source of potential dissent. After Suharto’s fall, there was a grassroots resurgence of religiosity in the public sphere that exploded into public consciousness in 2017.
“You can draw a line from the anti-Ahok rallies to the nomination of Maruf Amin in 2018,” said Andreas Harsono, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch in Jakarta. “Jokowi needed not just Muslim credentials, but Islamist credentials,” he said, distinguishing between the religion and its specifically political applications.
The two made an odd pair on the campaign trail, a metalhead and former furniture salesman paired with a 76-year-old cleric. Last weekend, Jokowi held an enormous campaign rally in South Jakarta that was more like a rock concert, which concluded with a stadium-wide mass prayer led by Maruf.
Prabowo is a former army general who was active in the last years of the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste; he is banned from the U.S. for alleged human rights violations during his time there. He also married into the military elite; his former wife is Suharto’s daughter. Despite having a Christian mother and not being known for his piety, Prabowo actively courted Islamist support too. He signed a pact of demands from the Islamic Defenders Front, a hard-line Islamist group that organized mass rallies in Jakarta in 2016 and calls for, among other things, greater application of sharia. He shouted “Allahu akbar!”—“God is great!”—at rallies and held a mass dawn prayer in the same stadium where Jokowi had his concert.
Just three days before the election, both Jokowi and Prabowo’s running mate Sandiaga Uno literally went to Mecca on umrah (the minor Muslim pilgrimage), to broadcast their piety. This underscores the overarching similarities of the tickets: Both were somewhat religious, and both were lukewarm on human rights.
It remains to be seen how Maruf’s presence at the highest levels of Indonesian government will affect Jokowi’s second term. But both tickets’ accommodation of Islam is in step with global trends in Muslim-majority countries, where democracy has not dovetailed with secularism, as the Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid argued in his book Islamic Exceptionalism. Many other Muslim-majority countries, such as Egypt and Turkey, have structural similarities with Indonesia, with mid- or late-20th-century periods of secular authoritarianism that eventually yielded to populist currents of long-repressed Muslim religiosity. In all these places, both Islam and Islamism have a seat at the table.
And that’s a democratic outcome. “Some of the developments in Indonesia are bad and troubling, but they are, in many respects, products of its democracy, rather than contrary to it,” Hamid said. “Democracy means reflecting popular sentiment, and popular sentiment in Indonesia is generally supportive of Islam playing a larger role in public life, for both better and worse. … Democratization and Islamization often go hand in hand.” He puts the rise of identity politics in Indonesia as part of a larger geopolitical trend in which “democratic competition becomes less policy-oriented and technocratic and becomes more preoccupied with questions of identity, culture, and religion”—a good summary of the shift between the tone of Jokowi’s first and second presidential candidacies.
Jokowi’s gambit seems to have worked, as there were plenty of anti-Ahok protesters at his stadium campaign rally. “Maruf Amin brings spirit to the ticket,” said Boy Paku, 35, a private sector worker who attended the 2017 Islamist rallies and voted for Jokowi. “As you know, Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country, and having Amin reflects the spirit of the umma,” or Muslim community.
Jokowi has a strong mandate for his second term, given his comfortable margin and the fact that he cannot run for re-election under Indonesian term limits, and many see this as an imperative to act more strongly on his lukewarm human rights record. Despite riding a progressive wave in 2014, Jokowi made very little progress on creating accountability for the 1965 massacre or in stopping the precipitous decline in LGBT rights since 2016. Religious intolerance also rose steeply during his term, per the Setara Institute, a Jakarta-based think tank, and indigenous people continue to face huge neglect.
“Whoever wins this election, they must have an obligation to resolve all the human rights violations of the past as well as recent ones,” said Lini Zurlia, a prominent queer activist in Jakarta. If it’s Jokowi, she said, “he must especially resolve what he already promised to all of us in the first term,” such as opening a tribunal on the 1965 massacre. “This is his chance. But if not, well … he is just a politician, and he is not a good leader for this country.”
Zurlia was also the face of a voter abstention movement dubbed “golput,” short for a phrase meaning “white group,” people who don’t choose either presidential candidate on the ballot. It was a position endorsed by many activists and young Indonesians in the face of what they considered to be two bad options. Jokowi was reportedly quite worried, but voter turnout was actually high this year, over 80 percent—up from around 70 percent in 2014, although golput is sometimes exercised by turning out, but then spoiling ballots.
“I think there were at least two factors behind this,” said Philips Vermonte, the lead researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. “This was the first year in which there were simultaneous elections for both the legislative branches and president, so there was a very long campaign season, over six months. I think this really let the message sink in to voters.” Also, he said, this election day fell shortly before the Easter holiday, which includes a federal holiday on Friday, “So that may also have encouraged people to stay in town and vote.”
The elections were combined this year for logistical ease, Vermonte said. Indonesia has the world’s largest one-day direct election, involving 800,000 polling stations this year and over 5 million Election Day volunteers. It was a remarkably efficient enterprise, with each polling station capped at 300 voters, each of whom voted for four or five different offices at once. Polls opened at 8 a.m., and a quick count was available in seven hours.
The combination of legislative and presidential elections also encouraged the early formation of coalitions this year, per Vermonte. Typically, coalitions have been formed only after the presidential election. In the future, this coalition-building may have the effect of creating distinct policy positions for each candidate, in a departure from the personality-based politics of Indonesia’s crowded multiparty system.
In a region that has been fertile with strongmen, Indonesia, the largest democracy and country in Southeast Asia, seems like a proof of concept for a resilient democracy, just 21 years after its democratic revolution.
“In Indonesia, they used to call it democracy, but it was authoritarian,” said Ari Sambur, a 65-year-old retiree in Kalibata, South Jakarta. “They would change your vote! The ballots didn’t matter. Now it’s real democracy,” he said. He grew up in North Sulawesi, where Prabowo’s mother is from.
“And now we can choose the president directly,” added his friend, Isman Ahmad Chuaini, who grew up in Jakarta. “Before we used to elect only the legislators.” Having lived through post-colonial “Guided Democracy,” a military dictatorship, and the democratic reform of 1988, they both agree that being an Indonesian voter has never been better.
“This year’s campaign was more vicious,” said Chuaini, even though the contenders were the same. “But that’s part of democracy too. We must defend it.”
Krithika Varagur is an American journalist in Indonesia. Twitter: @krithikavaragur