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Reconciliation has limits in post-election Indonesia

As Widodo seeks to patch up national wounds inflicted by election, Islamic hard-liners face renewed onslaught

Keith Loveard, Jakarta

Keith Loveard, Jakarta

Published: June 28, 2019 03:55 AM GMT

Updated: June 28, 2019 02:04 PM GMT

Reconciliation has limits in post-election Indonesia

Indonesian anti-riot police shoot tear gas to disperse protesters during a demonstration against Indonesia's President Joko Widodo's victory in the recent election in Jakarta in this May 22 file photo. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP)

There is widespread agreement that one task that Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo needs to tackle as he heads toward his second term in office is reconciliation.

The campaign period and rioting after the announcement of the result of the presidential election on June 21 left deep scars on the public consciousness.

Supporters of challenger Prabowo Subianto felt cheated and betrayed by the announcement by the General Election Commission (KPU) that their champion had been defeated by Widodo 55.5 percent to 44.5 percent.

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Nine deaths in the rioting were widely blamed on the police, in a further alleged conspiracy of the state to deny justice, even though the evidence points more to the work of provocateurs keen to stir the rioting mob to a frenzy that could then be manipulated to pull down the legitimate government.

Even while the Constitutional Court was listening to the argument of Subianto’s team claiming that they had been cheated, deals were already being done to bring most of the opposing political parties into a new Widodo government, in what was to be called a reconciliation cabinet.

Meetings were held with figures from the Democratic Party and the National Mandate Party, which had both backed Subianto in the poll. Then, on June 24, an official from Widodo’s campaign team said talks were also being held with Subianto’s own Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra), and that its presence in a new cabinet was seen as a priority.

If reconciliation in the political sphere is so easy, it’s less so elsewhere. Also on June 24, the Reuters news agency reported that it had seen documents and discussed with a senior official a plan to ‘weed out’ Islamists from positions of power in the public service.

President Widodo, the official said, wanted his defense of the nation against radical Islam to be part of his legacy.

“The president strongly believed that radical Islam threatened the state apparatus as well as the future of democracy,” Reuters reported.

By the next presidential election in 2024, he wanted the country cleansed of imported brands of the religion, leaving traditional forms of moderate and inclusive Islam unchallenged.

Leaders of the hard-line movement had already admitted that their presence on the streets was no longer a question of supporting one presidential candidate over another.

Urged by Subianto’s camp to rein in their supporters for the sake of national stability, they responded that they weren’t turning out to defend Subianto, but were there to defend Islam, which they see as under attack from the forces of secularism.

Now Widodo has effectively confirmed their view that their austere, Saudi-influenced interpretation of their religion is the target, setting up a direct confrontation.

Having been busy quietly infiltrating every level of society over the past two decades, the role of the radicals is now being officially questioned. Home-grown Muslim organizations Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which have been fighting the hard-liners for years, will be relieved.

But there are concerns that “increased vetting” and the shunting sideways of senior bureaucrats known to harbor radical views of Islam will simply replicate the authoritarian style of the New Order government of former dictator Suharto.

Until he decided in the early 1990s that he needed to get closer to Islam, Suharto had barely tolerated the religion and his intelligence agents had harried proponents of Saudi-style Wahhabi Islam, with many of them leaving the country to seek refuge.

Two, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and Abdullah Sungkar, fled to Malaysia and formed Jemaah Islamiyah.

With the arrival of democratic government in Indonesia with the fall of Suharto in 1998, the two radicals returned home, and inspired a series of bombings beginning in 2000 and culminating in the 2002 Bali bombing, in which 202 people died.

Democracy allowed such characters back on the main stage, where they made good use of their new-found freedom to preach fire and brimstone, warning the local Muslim population that they had to get serious about their religion.

Widodo was initially cautious about confronting the hardliners. He reluctantly acknowledged their presence outside the State Palace when they mounted a massive demonstration calling for the jailing of the Jakarta governor, Christian ethnic Chinese Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, at the end of 2016.

But the president was clearly not prepared to go too far in accepting their presence on the streets or acknowledge them as a legitimate part of the political scene.

The armed forces commander of the day, Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, was removed not long after he wore a green Muslim prayer cap to meet the radical leaders with Widodo.

The crackdown now being planned will take aim at those who have toyed with radical viewpoints in the ministries and the state-owned enterprises, cutting off the career paths of plenty of officials.

The Reuters report cited a 2017 survey by Alvara Research Center that found one in five civil servants and 10 percent of state enterprise workers did not agree with the secular state ideology Pancasila and instead favored an Islamic theocratic state.

Steps already taken to reinforce Pancasila’s message of toleration between the country’s varied religious and ethnic groups appear to have had little impact.

Various surveys show that schools and universities have been deeply affected by the hard-line message. One study found that 53.06 percent of teachers at primary and secondary schools in the country have intolerant views.

For Widodo, political reconciliation has its limits as he lines up his allies and foes in the battle against radical Islam.

Visibly alone outside the group of parties now being considered to join the government is the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), widely seen as the Indonesian franchise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

If the enlarged coalition of political parties does come into being, it will find itself a lonely opposition in the House of Representatives.

Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.

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