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Minority groups in Indonesia see little hope in election

As debates pave way to April poll, Ahmadis and other persecuted groups have to choose between 'lesser of two evils'

Minority groups in Indonesia see little hope in election

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (center), who is running for his second term, his running mate Ma'ruf Amin (third left), head of Joko Widodo's succession team Erick Thohir (second left) chief of Golongan Karya party Airlangga Hartarto (third right) walk during a peace declaration for the upcoming general election campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta on Sept. 23, 2018. Indonesia's presidential election will be held in April. (Photo by Adek Berry/AFP)

Indonesia's presidential candidates neglected to discuss violations of people's freedom of religion during their first debate in January, but this came as scant surprise to Yendra Budiana, an Ahmadi.

"Nothing surprises me anymore," he told ucanews.com. "We suspected it wouldn't be discussed."

The Muslim-majority archipelago is gearing up for the April 17 poll but minorities like Budiana, who belongs to an Islamic revival movement founded in British India in the late 19th century, say they have low expectations of their needs and fears being addressed.  

Ahmadis have been among the main targets of persecution for over decade in Indonesia since their sect was declared "deviant" by the authorities.

They are considered non-Muslims by mainstream Muslims because they believe their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, is the promised messiah.

The first debate between incumbent Joko Widodo, who has teamed up with cleric Ma'ruf Amin, and former general Prabowo Subianto, who is running with businessman Sandiaga Uno, took place on Jan. 17. It focused on law, human rights, terrorism, and corruption.

However, it was much criticized as neither candidate came up with concrete measures, particularly on human rights issues such as violations of the rights of minority groups.

"I hope there will be something more concrete, for example regarding their attitude toward our congregation in Lombok, which has been displaced for 15 years," said Budiana.

He was referring to the more than 200 families stuck in a refugee camp in West Nusa Tenggara province after hard-line Muslim groups expelled them from their homes.

"I doubt we will hear much positive moves going forward," he said.

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Widodo has drawn critics' ire for not showing strong interest in overcoming a range of human rights issues, including those related to religious freedom.

Instead, he tends to prioritize infrastructure development.

He has also taken flak for failing to curb the persecution meted out against Ahmadis and Shia Muslims, also considered deviants by majority Sunnis.

In addition to the widespread closure of their mosques, restrictions have been imposed on their activities.

One notable incident on Jan. 4 saw intolerant groups forcibly dissolve a gathering of Ahmadis in Bandung, West Java.

Widodo has also come under fire from rights group for choosing Amin.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos from the Setara Institute for Democracy said that during Amin's tenure as head of the Indonesian Ulema Council, he was known to be ultra-conservative.

He famously issued a fatwa in 2005 declaring Ahmadis heretics, which formed the basis of the persecution they still suffer to this day.

Amin also issued a fatwa outlawing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups and in 2016 he claimed that former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian better known as "Ahok" had committed blasphemy.

That statement triggered a wave of anti-Purnama protests that ultimately resulted in his incarceration.

Although expressing disappointment with Widodo, Naipospos warned that Subianto also posed a threat given that he has received so much support from hard-line groups like the notorious Islamic Defenders Front.

This has prompted a surge in calls from minority groups to abstain from voting.

Among their number is Rev. Palti Panjaitan, leader of the Filadelfia Huria Batak Protestant Church, which has been unable to worship at its church in Bekasi, West Java since the start of 2019 due to opposition from Muslim groups. The local government responded by revoking the property's building permit.

"Knowing the track record of these candidates make me fret, especially because of their failure to address our problems and the rampant politicization of religion to seek political support," the priest told ucanews.com.

Yet his congregation still holds services on two Sundays a month in front of the presidential place in Jakarta as part of their attempt to get the president's attention.

Human rights activists expressed their support for snubbing the election during a press conference in Jakarta on Jan. 23.

Lini Zurlia, a lawyer who in 2014 chose Widodo, said she would not vote as none of the leaders show any respect for her religious or sexual preferences.

"Widodo's partner, Amin, has contributed to the growing religious conflict. He is very intolerant," she said, adding that Subianto was not much better in terms of his handling of human rights issues.

A recent survey by Charta Politika showed Widodo was still leading the opinion polls with 53.2 percent while Subianto had amassed 34.1 percent. About 12.7 percent were considered swing voters.

More than 185 million people will be eligible to vote on April 17.

Pangi Syarwi Chaniago, executive director of the Voxpol Center, said the number of abstentions looks set to outdo those recorded during the last election in 2014, when the rate stood at around 30 percent.

"As the candidates are seen as being unable to solve people's basic problems, the number of people who will choose to abstain will automatically rise," he said.

Father Paulus Christian Siswantoko, executive secretary of the Bishops' Commission for the Laity, agreed that Widodo and Subianto have been badly remiss in the past concerning human rights issues.

"They are hardly ideal presidential candidates," he said, adding that, "even though we feel disappointed in them, we still have to cast our ballots."

He said it was incumbent on the electorate to show its support for the lesser of two evils.

"We may get the one we want, but at least we can stop the worst one of the two from coming to power," he added.

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