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Indonesians wait next to a poster of presidential candidates at a polling centre. Photo: AFP

Indonesia election: hardline Islam, where it all went wrong for Prabowo Subianto

  • Yohanes Sulaiman charts the course to Wednesday’s turbulent election day, and what the likely takeaways will be
  • For Prabowo, it is not due to lack of trying. Pollsters say he won the popular vote in four more provinces this year compared to 2014
If the quick count results from Wednesday’s presidential election hold, it would mean President Joko Widodo managed to comfortably fend off his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, with a margin between 7 and 9 percentage points.

For pollsters tracking both candidates over the last eight months, the outcome is not a surprise. Indikator, IndoBarometer, CSIS, Kompas, and Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting (SMRC) had predicted Jokowi and his running mate Ma’ruf Amin’s victory albeit with a wider margin of victory.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, and his running mate Ma'ruf Amin. Photo: AP Photo
If challengers Prabowo and Sandiaga Uno were able to narrow the predicted gap, then the question remains of why they could not close it any further, unlike in 2014 when Jokowi beat Prabowo by 6 percentage points.

For Prabowo, it is not due to lack of trying. Pollsters say the former general won the popular vote in four more provinces this year compared to 2014, though official results from the Indonesia’s Elections Commission are not yet out and might only be released in May.

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These 14 provinces – expected to include West Java, Banten and North Sumatra – are known to be among the most conservative places in the country. Since the 2014 election, Prabowo’s supporters have painted Jokowi as an enemy of Islam, a secret Communist and a Catholic, despite the incumbent leader being a devout Javanese Muslim. Their efforts to discredit Jokowi’s policies have tapped into latent anti-Chinese sentiment, and this line of attack hit its crescendo in 2017.

That was when Jokowi’s ally, Basuki Tjahja Purnama, or Ahok, a Chinese Christian, ran as a governor of Jakarta. Prabowo’s supporters went on the offensive, claiming that Ahok was committing blasphemy and by voting for a Christian, they would go to hell. The black campaign – which the Jakarta Post newspaper described as “the dirtiest, most polarising and most divisive the nation has ever seen” - helped bring about Ahok’s downfall, despite his accomplishments and high approval rating.
Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. Photo: AP Photo
The result so emboldened the hardliners that Habib Rizieq Shihab, the founder of vigilante group Islamic Defenders Front, wanted Prabowo’s camp to reuse that strategy to bring down Jokowi.

Jokowi however was on alert and realising he might lose his bid for a second term, decided to safeguard himself by giving favours to Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).

He chose Ma’ruf Amin, a senior figure in NU, as his running mate and split up his Islamist opponents – for example giving positions to figures more amenable to him and outlawed militant group Hizbut Tahrir, NU’s rival. These actions bolstered his share of votes in NU’s heartland of Central and East Java, two of the most populous provinces in Indonesia.
At the same time, Jokowi benefited from economic growth. Granted, he was faulted for the economy expanding by only 5 per cent – less than the 7 per cent he promised – and relying too much on state-owned enterprises for his infrastructure projects. In fact, Sandiaga, during his more than 1500 visits to voters across Indonesia and the debates between the presidential contenders, also attacked Jokowi’s economic policies for not benefiting the poor and those grappling with the rising cost of living.

Jokowi also benefited from the Islamists overplaying their hands. Moderate and minority voters had been crestfallen when Jokowi chose Ma’ruf – who was instrumental in bringing down Ahok and once forbade Muslims to say “Merry Christmas” to Christians – and felt let down by his lack of attention to human rights problems. They may have thought to skip the election but finally decided to hold their collective noses and vote for Jokowi, resulting in the spectre of a low turnout or high numbers of spoilt ballots – which would have worked in Prabowo’s favour – not materialising.

Of the 192 million registered voters, about 80 per cent went to more than 800,000 polling stations to punch their ballot cards, probably worried that their inaction would result in a Prabowo victory and a clampdown on their rights.

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The example of Meiliana’s case comes to mind. The Buddhist ethnic Chinese woman living in North Sumatra was arrested and sent to prison for 18 months for privately complaining to her neighbour that the call to prayer from a mosque close to her residence was too loud. This caused a Muslim vigilante mob to attack, burn and ransack local Chinese temples, and in the end, they only got a very light sentence, like a slap on their wrists.
Ultimately, Prabowo’s chequered background as a former military leader suspected of human rights violations – something that cast a pall over his previous bids for higher office – became less of an issue than Jokowi’s ability to garner support from moderates.
Mahouts ride elephants transporting election materials to a polling station in Trumon, Southern Aceh province. Photo: AFP
Prabowo is 67 years old this year and this is likely to be his final hurrah. Sandiaga however is 49 and could run for the top job in 2024, since Jokowi will not be allowed to contest again.

The campaign period has given Sandiaga nationwide recognition and if Prabowo bows out from politics, the former could easily take over the reins of Gerindra, Prabowo’s party that is likely to be the second-largest in Parliament.

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Sandiaga benefited from the support of Islamists but never hoisted their flag on his mast, choosing instead to portray himself as a pious though tolerant and moderate Muslim. His focus on the economy means he will still have some appeal to voters, opening the door to another contest.

This in no way means that Islamists will no longer be an important factor in 2024. Religious conservatism is currently growing in Indonesia due to years of growth of Salafi-oriented schools, funded by Saudi Arabia. And as shown by the quick count, if Prabowo dominates 14 provinces by framing opposition to Jokowi as a defence of the Muslim faith, then in a wide, open race in 2024, candidates could appeal to religious fundamentalists to garner votes.

Still, what Jokowi’s likely victory shows though is that they can still be beaten, if a coalition of moderates can be motivated to come together and negate the issue of religion in elections. This is the lesson of the 2019 presidential election.

Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer in International Relations at the School of Government at the Universitas Jenderal Achmad Yani in Cimahi, Indonesia

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Hardline Islam: where it all went wrong for Prabowo