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Indonesia's Widodo chooses Muslim cleric as running mate

Choice of Ulema Council chief Ma'ruf Amin seen as bid to dispel accusations against president that he is anti-Islam

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Indonesia's Widodo chooses Muslim cleric as running mate

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and his running mate Ma'ruf Amin declare their candidacy in front of supporters in Gedung Joang 45, a museum in Jakarta, on Aug. 10 before registering their intention to run with the General Election Commission. (Photo by Ryan Dagur/ucanews.com)

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Indonesian President Joko Widodo has chosen a conservative Muslim cleric as his running mate for next year's presidential election in a move observers said was an attempt to blunt accusations that he was anti-Islam.

Widodo's choice of cleric Ma'ruf Amin, 75, was approved by the ruling nine-party coalition, led by the president's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.

"[He] is a wise religious figure and has vast experience in government," Widodo said in a televised press conference in Jakarta on Aug. 9.

A former legislator at national and local level, Amin is currently chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country's top Muslim clerical body and a member of the Presidential Advisory Council.

He is also an adviser to Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Islamic organization and a member of the steering board on state ideology, a unit established last year by Widodo to combat radicalism and extremism.

"We complement each other," said Widodo.

By choosing Amin, Widodo is aware that winning over skeptical Muslim voters is key to winning the poll on April 17 next year, according to Ujang Komarudin, a political analyst and director of the Indonesia Political Review.

Political rivals have labeled Widodo as anti-Islam, pro-communist and hostile to Muslim clerics and Islamic groups.

"By choosing Amin, a respected cleric and experienced politician, he wants to dispel all these assumptions," Komarudin told ucanews.com.

At the same time, it prevents his rival Prabowo Subianto playing a sectarian game, which is what happened in the Jakarta governor election last year.

Robikin Emhas, a leading Nahdlatul Ulama figure, said choosing Amin would boost the spirits of the organization's members, estimated at more than 80 million.

"Even without being asked, all of us will be solid in our support for him to win the election," Emhas said.

Berthy B. Rahawarin, a Catholic activist and state philosophy lecturer at President University in West Java, said one key issue in Indonesia is identity politics, which must be handled carefully.

He said Widodo's choice of a religious figure as vice-president does not mean that he will neglect other important sectors, such as business and investment.

He said, investors — not only in Indonesia but in other parts of the world — understand that identity politics can rattle the business sector, if not properly handled.

According to Rahawarin, embracing a religious leader, such as Amin, is a bid to prevent instability brought about by identity politics fomented by hard-line groups.

"It is now a melting pot of various interests among different parties in [the ruling] coalition," he told ucanews.com, adding that the nationalist Widodo and religious Amin are the perfect leadership combination for Indonesia today.

Widodo next year goes up against Prabowo Subianto, a former military commander who led Indonesia's invasion of Timor-Leste and who was also Widodo's defeated opponent in the 2014 election.

Subianto chose businessman and deputy Jakarta governor Sandiaga Uno as his running mate.

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