Indonesian President Joko Widodo, center, walks next to Jakarta Governor Anis Baswedan, right, and Minister of Public Works and Public Housing Basuki Hadimuljono during their visit to the athlete's village for the upcoming Asian Games in Kemayoran district, central Jakarta on Feb. 26. (Photo by Adek Berry/AFP)
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has stressed the importance of maintaining religious tolerance as the political situation heats up ahead of regional elections this summer and next year's presidential election.
The General Elections Commission (KPU) said the regional electoral campaigns will conclude on June 23 with votes to be cast on June 27 for 17 provinces, 115 districts and 39 municipalities. It also set a series of guidelines to curb sectarianism. The campaigns officially began on Feb. 15.
The presidential election will take place in May 2019.
"Regional and presidential elections are only a once-in-five-year democratic party. Go to the polls, then unite again," Widodo told about 3,000 farmers who gathered in Cirebon, West Java, on March 11.
He urged people not to let their political views get in the way of religious tolerance.
"I appeal to you not to let your different choices serve as a basis for intolerance," he said. "We can't build friendships with our neighbors and other villages if we are intolerant [of the choices] they make."
He said this was especially the case in Indonesia given the vast size of the country and its numerous religions, ethnicities and races.
Hard-line groups exploited religious sentiment to bolster their campaigns during last year's elections in Jakarta, which saw the Chinese Christian governor of the capital lose a bitter, religiously-tinged race.
Hundreds of Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) members take part in a rally against communism in front of the presidential palace in Jakarta on June 3, 2016, to welcome in the holy month of Ramadan. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP)
Leaders of the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front claim the use of dakwah, or preaching, at mosques, helped garner votes for Muslim candidates, leading Muslim Anies Baswedan to defeat Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a former education minister commonly known as 'Ahok.'
Ahok was leading the polls until he was accused of blasphemy against Islam in a criminal trial. His supporters blasted this as a case of political sabotage by his opponents.
Masdar Farid Mas'udi, chairperson of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, said he hoped the religious and racially tinged strife of that election would not be repeated.
"It is dangerous," he told ucanews.com on March 12. "We need a leader who can work for all the people."
Others said the government must not let religious sentiment divide the nation.
"It must keep peace in the country until the election is finished so that people don't become divided," said Azas Tigor Nainggolan, who works for the human rights desk of the Indonesian Bishops' Commission for Justice, Peace and Pastoral for Migrant-Itinerant People.
He said people who deliberately spread fake news to stoke religious sentiment must be held accountable and may face arrest.
"I hope our law enforcement apparatus monitors the campaigns to see if there is anyone exploiting religious issues. Such actions must be stopped even if it means they have to be arrested," he said.
Political analyst Lucius Karus said it is difficult to separate religion and politics in Muslim-majority Indonesia.
"Elections are not just a political activity but something that affects people's social and religious lives," he said. "Moreover, Indonesia has a history of using religion to serve political interests."
Karus expressed concern about outbreaks of violence by factions aligned with various political groups in the run-up to the next elections.
"The president's appeal to religious leaders to tolerate other faiths shows how this is an important pillar many parties lean on," Karus said.
He said religion teachings should inform people's code of ethics but should not infiltrate politics.
Maria Fernanda, 21, who attends university in Jakarta, said the public should be on guard for fake news and not let their differences destroy social bonds.
"We should not act like provocateurs or spread news that is not true because that can damage our relations with other people," she said.
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