Indonesia Elections: What Does Jokowi’s Re-election Mean for the Rise of Political Islam?

Indonesia's recently concluded elections question the President's liberal and secular character.

On 22 May 2019, the Indonesian General Election Commission published its month-long tally of votes, covering 190 million eligible voters. The incumbent President Joko Widodo (commonly known as Jokowi) won his second and last term in office, defeating former army general Prabowo Subianto. The 2019 election witnessed an increasing engagement with identity politics and the rise of political Islam. Observers saw the presidential election as a referendum not only on Jokowi’s developmentalist approach (Warburton 2016), but more significantly on the image of a liberal and multicultural Indonesia. 

The idea of Jokowi as the defender of liberal values and minority rights has been ingrained in the minds of many Indonesians, despite Jokowi’s own efforts to distance himself away from it (Economist 2019). Jokowi, a former furniture exporter, began his political career as mayor of the central Javanese town of Solo, and later became governor of Jakarta. His humble origins and non-elite status meant that he lacked power relations in the capital (Mietzner 2014), and the opposition used this disadvantage to paint Jokowi as a puppet president beholden to national and foreign interests. In an effort to dispel this image, Jokowi adopted a nationalist mantel, which has proved to be more than just optics. Jokowi is perhaps Indonesia’s first Sukarnoist president after President Sukarno (1945–65), reviving programmes associated with nation-building, limiting regional cooperation with other Association of South–East Asian (ASEAN) countries (Pinkus 2015), and has adopted a more nationalist outlook (Connelly 2015).

Jokowi has shied away from former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (2004–12) articulate support for a liberal civil society, and campaigned on a pro-poor, nationalist and populist image. His focus on infrastructure has resulted in impressive investment numbers on toll roads, airports, ports and other key infrastructure sectors (Salim and Negara 2018). He has also broken the deadlock on the state’s inability to deal with land acquisition. Yet, during his first term as president, minority rights have suffered. There have been violent attacks against Chinese–Indonesians, Buddhists and minority Islamic sects such as the Ahmadiyyah and Shia communities.  More recently, LGBT and feminist groups have also been targeted (Davies 2016; Irawan 2017 ). More alarming, however, is the gradual normalisation of fundamentalist Islamic organisations and clerics, and the continuing institutionalisation and codification of Islamist values and laws, especially in the more right-leaning regencies and provinces. This process of normalisation began under Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and has continued unchecked under Jokowi’s rule. 

Under Jokowi, two major Islamic organisations have seen swift ascendency: the Islamic Defenders Front[1] (Front Pembela Islam[FPI]), a civil paramilitary organisation, and the Indonesian Ulema Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia[MUI]), a civil society group created by Suharto in 1975 as a means to control Muslim religious leaders during his reign. However,  the post-Suharto period has seen the MUI become one of Indonesia’s  most important political players. In 2005, the MUI issued a fatwa declaring haram liberalism, multiculturalism and secularism, which had a decisive impact in shifting Indonesia’s public discourse away from the more freewheeling liberal experiments of the early Reformasi period[2], to today’s more conservative tone (Bruinessen 2011). In 2017, both the MUI and FPI were instrumental in defeating the incumbent Chinese–Christian Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama—more famously known as Ahok—in Jakarta’s gubernatorial election. Their success in mobilising the masses resulted in Ahok’s imprisonment on blasphemy charges for criticising his opponent’s use of Koranic script (Setijadi 2017). Jokowi did little to protect his former vice-governor. Further, Jokowi chose Ma’ruf Amin, the head of the MUI, as his vice presidential running mate for the 2019 election, cementing the MUI’s legitimacy in national politics.

Ahok’s imprisonment reveals how fickle Indonesia’s political class is. Both Jokowi and Ahok were supported by Prabowo Subianto in Jakarta’s 2012 gubernatorial election, when Ahok campaigned under the banner of Prabowo’s secular–nationalist Gerindra Party. Subianto’s father, Sumitro Djojohadikusumo, was one of Indonesia’s earliest professional economists, and a Fabian socialist with social–democratic beliefs. Further, Prabowo's mother was a Protestant, which helped strengthen his syncretic Javanese beliefs and shape his political outlook, which is seen as rather secular. Yet, Prabowo has now aligned himself as Indonesia’s Islamist candidate for the 2019 elections.

How Has Political Islam Manifested in Indonesia?

Traditionally, Islamic parties in Indonesia fall under two major Islamic streams: the modernist Muslims who follow a purist interpretation of Islam, and the traditionalist Muslims who are generally seen as more liberal and open to a syncretic form of Islam that fuses their liberalism with more traditional elements of Indonesian beliefs and culture (Bruinessen 2013). In 2019, all five major Islamic-leaning political parties secured 29.26% of the votes, compared to 31.41% in 2014, 25.94% in 2009, and 35.12% in 2004. All  post-Suharto elections (2004 onwards) have shown a drop in Muslim votes, especially when compared to Indonesia’s first and only democratic general election held in 1955, before the army took over the country in 1966. During this election, Islamic-leaning political parties won around 42.4% of votes, with modernists winning nearly 21% and traditionalists winning 18.4% of votes. In the 2019 election, modernist Muslim parties obtained only 14% of the votes while the traditionalists won only 14.5%. The most aggressive modernist Islamic party, the Prosperous Justice Party—commonly referred to as PKS—was predicted to increase its vote share as a result of supposed infiltration of identity politics in Indonesian political discourse. However, the PKS saw only a marginal increase of 1.5% from the previous election, winning 8.2% of votes.

Secular–nationalist parties continue to dominate the Indonesian voters. The major secular–nationalist parties won 48.26% of the votes in the 2004 elections, 57.56% in 2009 and 67.68% in the 2014 election. The 2019 election saw the secular–nationalist vote share go down to 61.82%. Thus, while the 2019 election seems to indicate the end of the expansion of secular–nationalist votes, their loss of vote share does not correspond to an increase in votes for Islamic parties.

These numbers question the effectiveness of increasing identity politics in determining the recent election results. It could be that identity politics galvanised both Muslim and secular/minority voters, thus negating what appeared to be the loud and raucous rise of Islamic politics. The 2019 election saw the highest turnout ever recorded, with 80% of eligible voters casting their ballot. No doubt heightened politicisation as a result of identity politics played a part. Looking at the total tally of presidential votes, the numbers have shifted only slightly: Jokowi and his then running mate, Jusuf Kalla, won the Presidential and Vice-Presidential office in 2014 with 53.5% of the votes against the Prabowo–Hatta Rajasa combine, who won 46.85% of votes. In 2019, the Jokowi–Ma’ruf Amin camp won 55.35%  of votes, while the Prabowo–Sandiago Uno combine won 44.66% of votes. The marginal increase in vote percentage for Jokowi was a disappointment. Yet, the result proved contrary to the supposed popular support against him, as was witnessed in many Muslim-dominated demonstrations in Jakarta. One reason is that since Jakarta is a strong base for political Islam, anything that happens in the capital tends to be amplified as having greater national implication. While political Islam is often in public view, a large percentage of secularists and minorities bide their time to make their voices heard through the ballot boxes. 

How Were Votes Distributed?

The polarisation of votes becomes apparent from its geographic distribution. The traditionally conservative areas leaned towards Prabowo, and minority and ethnic Javanese provinces voted for Jokowi.  In non-Muslim majority provinces, Jokowi captured a larger vote share. In majority–Hindu Bali, Jokowi won 91.68% in 2019, compared to 71.5% in 2014. In the largely Protestant North Sulawesi, Jokowi won  77.2% of the vote in 2019 compared to 53.81% in 2014. Jokowi captured a larger vote share in North Sulawesi even though Prabowo’s mother hailed from the province. On the other hand, Prabowo expanded his vote share in conservative Muslim areas. He obtained 85.4% of the votes in the Shariah province of Aceh, compared to 55% in 2014. In West Sumatra, Prabowo increased his vote share by nine percentage points, to 86%. Yet, despite these showings, Prabowo lost in the island of Java, where over half of the Indonesian population live. The western part of the island is a strong Muslim area, Central Java has always been a strong nationalist power base, and it was this area that many of the nationalist and communist votes came in the 1955 election. East Java had always been a bastion of traditionalist Muslim, and is a core area for the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a traditionalist Islamic organisation. Prabowo obtained 60% of the votes in West Java, Jokowi succeeded in getting 77.2% for Central Java and 66% for East Java. 

One of the more curious aspects of this election has been the relative inertia of voting patterns and ideological alliances in post-independence Indonesian democracy. Comparing voting patterns and ideological alliances of the 2019 election with those of Indonesia’s first election in 1955, we see that  the alliance of secular–nationalists with traditionalist and modernist Muslim parties during the 1950s mirrored the alliances forged for the 2019 election. Although there were slight differences, such as the absence of the Communist Party and the presence of the nationalist right (the Golkar party and its various offshoots such as National Democrat, Democratic and Gerindra party) that grew during the New Order (1966–98), the alliances formed roughly followed the ideological positions that had been cemented during the 1950s (Feith 1962). A look into the regional voting patterns shows this inertia, with a large proportion of Muslim votes coming from West Java, Sumatra, and other Muslim-majority areas in the outer islands. Nationalist-left votes came from Central and East Java and minority areas of the outer Islands. This divide between Java and the outer islands was significant enough to fuel separatist movements during the 1950s, and although unlikely to produce anything drastic, the 2019 election has highlighted the continuation of this divide. 

Does Political Islam Have a Future?

Foreign observers assume that both alliances represent a secular–progressive group versus a conservative right-wing group (Coca 2019). They are mistaken. Neither alliance is secular and both include Islamic parties. The biggest difference between this election and those of previous years is the extent to which both alliances pandered to the religious right. Prabowo’s decision to form a marriage of convenience between his Gerindra party and other, radical Muslim groups seems to be the decisive reason why political Islam has dominated the political discourse.  Jokowi’s efforts to refrain from being seen as secular or liberal also pandered to the shift in discourse, and his decision to name Ma’ruf Amin as his Vice-Presidential candidate cemented this shift to political Islam. 

The role of political Islam, in particular the use of radical Muslim organisations like the FPI to mobilise popular support may wane because they seem to have been counterproductive in securing votes. While these groups have achieved some sort of normalisation and legitimacy, it may not last long, except perhaps their use for regional politics The secular–nationalist alliance with modernist Muslims may weaken considering its failure in increasing vote share.  Time will tell if Prabowo ends his alliance with the more radical groups. The biggest winner of this election has been the  secular–nationalist parties, which has seen large increases in its vote share.  Further, Jokowi’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of struggle (PDIP), has remained the largest party in Indonesia. Jokowi continues to have majority coalition support from Parliament, and although Jokowi’s running mate is from the MUI, the post of vice-president has traditionally been quite limited in determining wider policy trajectory. 

The rise of radical Muslims has also resulted in the rise of liberals in the form of a small and youthful political party, the Partai Solidaritas Indonesia (PSI), which supported minority—including LGBT—rights. While the PSI did not cross the threshold votes required to enter Parliament, it won seats from Jakarta, and has strongly tied itself to Jokowi’s side. The 2019 election has thus shown the persistence of traditional Indonesian identity, the so called aliran,[3] and may perhaps point to the weakening of political Islam for the foreseeable future.

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