Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (second from left) and his running mate Ma'ruf Amin (left) sing the national anthem with presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (second from right) and his running mate Sandiaga Uno (right) before the last presidential debate in Jakarta on April 13. Photo: Reuters
by C. Uday Bhaskar
by C. Uday Bhaskar

In Indonesia, the genie of hardline Islamism has been let out of the bottle. Can Joko Widodo put it back in?

  • The case of Ahok, the ethnic Chinese governor who enraged hardline Muslims, still haunts Indonesia’s latest election. The question is whether President Widodo, the likely winner of the election, will use his term to restore ‘smiling Islam’
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation, conducted a complex national election with commendable efficiency on April 17 and while the official results will only be announced by May 22, the unofficial but usually accurate quick counts indicate President Joko Widodo has won a second five-year term.

The scale of the election and the fact that it was successfully completed in a single day rank as extraordinary achievements. More than 150 million Indonesian citizens – 80 per cent of the voter base – spread across three time zones in this vast nation of more than 17,000 islands turned out to vote for presidential, parliamentary and regional candidates.

The current presidential contest is between Widodo and his rival from 2014: Prabowo Subianto, a retired general and former son-in-law of the late Indonesian supremo Suharto. Most pre-poll surveys showed that Widodo would win this election and that the only question was about the margin of the victory. However, with both Widodo and his rival claiming victory based on quick counts, the matter may again be referred to the courts. There is a sense of déjà vu, of events unfolding in the same pattern as in 2014.

To prevent a mass protest by the hardline Islamic support base of Subianto, security minister Wiranto and national police chief Tito Karnavian have cautioned that security forces will act decisively against any attempt to disrupt public order. However, a mass protest is unlikely for now.

Still, this not-so-veiled warning draws attention to a distinctive aspect of the 2019 election: the role of Islam and how it has impacted Indonesian politics and the polity in recent years. This has been a central concern since Indonesia attained independence in 1945. Resisting the demands of right-wing clerics who wanted Indonesia to be an Islamic nation that would adhere to sharia, president Sukarno (1945-66) opted for the more inclusive, secular template of Pancasila.

Under Suharto (1967–98), this policy continued and a more tolerant form of Islam was nurtured, with a new syncretism permeating Indonesian society.

However, in the last two decades, with the slow but steady consolidation of the democratic ethos in Indonesia, a more assertive Islamic identity of the country has been visible and this has played out in the domestic political context. Tectonic global events such as the end of the cold war, the September 11 attacks and the spread of jihadi ideology and related terrorism have had their impact on Indonesian society.

In the post-Suharto era in Indonesian politics known as Reformasi, there has been a revival of Islam as a significant determinant. However, this has been limited to nationalist political parties acknowledging Islam but locating it within the inclusive framework of Pancasila. A manifestation of this was the election of Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of the traditional Sunni organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, as the fourth president of Indonesia (1999–2001).

A more defining incident is the Ahok case, which is still shaping strategies in the 2019 election. In 2016, mass protests against ethnic Chinese mayor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, aka Ahok, paralysed Jakarta. Demonstrators accused Ahok of blaspheming against the Koran during a speech in September that year.
Indonesian Muslims marched against Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese mayor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, alias Ahok, accusing him of blasphemy, on November 4, 2016. The Ahok effect is still visible in the 2019 election. Photo: AFP
The fact that Basuki is Christian probably aggravated hardline Muslim sentiment, but the opportunistic play of the Islam card was evident. One protest on December 2 that was dubbed the 212 movement brought hardline Islamists together and very soon Basuki, a one-time protégé of Widodo, became politically isolated. Bowing to public pressure, Basuki was sentenced to jail and has only been released recently.
But the Ahok effect is still visible. In the hope of strengthening the moderate nationalist Muslim constituency, Widodo chose Ma’ruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council, as his vice-presidential running mate for 2019. It is worth recalling that Amin condemned Basuki during the 212 movement and was perceived to be the true defender of the faith, in contrast to Widodo, who was on the defensive for having supported the alleged blasphemer.

The Ahok factor has also influenced the presidential campaign of Subianto, who solicited the support of the more hardline Islamic faction. In the run-up to the election, the voter was often bemused to see the two presidential candidates each trying to project an image as the better Muslim and presenting the other as the less pious one. Earlier in the year, award-winning Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan rued that regardless of which candidate would win the election, “the Islamists have already won”.

Having spent the last week in Jakarta and talked to a cross-section of the citizenry, the sense I got was that most Indonesians see the 2019 election as a closed chapter and are hopeful a re-elected Widodo will deal with the religious hardliners. But some political divisiveness from the election lingers, as well as a palpable unease about the street power of the Islamists. However, their victory may be five years away – in the 2024 election. Indonesia, I was assured, is not turning into the next Pakistan just yet.

Whether Widodo will use his second and final presidential term to restore the “smiling Islam” that Indonesia is better known for remains moot. But this will be the critical challenge for the world’s largest Muslim country – the consensual and equitable harmonisation of religion in a democratic framework – so that, in the final analysis, Indonesia wins.

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think tank based in New Delhi