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Sectarianism and elections are a recipe for disaster

Using religion and violence for achieving political ends undermines democracy and threatens upcoming Indonesian polls

Max Regus, Indonesia

Max Regus, Indonesia

Published: April 27, 2018 06:07 AM GMT

Updated: April 27, 2018 06:20 AM GMT

Sectarianism and elections are a recipe for disaster

Muslim protesters take to the streets after Friday prayers in Jakarta in this May 5, 2017 file photo, to protest against outgoing Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama who was on trial for blasphemy. Jakarta's Christian governor was earlier defeated in a religiously charged election. (Photo by Goh Chai Hin/AFP)

Indonesia goes to the polls on June 27, the second phase of local elections that follow the first such round that took place in 2015.

This year, there will be elections in 171 areas, according to the Indonesian Election Commission.

At least two questions are at the forefront of public discussion. First, will there be violence? And second, will religion dominate campaigns?

These questions are quite pertinent in light of the Jakarta governor election last year.

That poll was written off as one of the "worst" in Indonesian history, full of religious provocation, social hatred, and hate-filled propaganda.

Moreover it moved "hand in hand" with massive inter-socio-politico group intimidation and violence.


The seeds of violence

The first question relates to last year's governor poll and quite simply Indonesia should not discount an increase in violent behavior during these upcoming elections.

The seeds of violence are closely linked to transitional democracy in Indonesia.

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Indonesia's political pathway in the two decades since the fall of Suharto's regime in 1998 has been influenced significantly by a wave of uncertainties.

Indonesia believes democracy is the main vehicle for promoting and achieving social, political and economic progress.

As such, supporting civil liberties, freedom of the press and a multi-party system are key facets in this political belief.

However, Indonesia has to face the fact that political competition, from presidential elections down to local polls, is being pursued in ways contrary to this stated political belief and democratic optimism.

Elections at many levels have not been staged in a way that would strengthen democracy in Indonesia. The influence of corruption and sectarianism are two key factors.

Violence could well emerge in the local elections. The seeds of which were probably sown in the 2014 presidential election. The animosity between the victor, Joko Widodo, and his rival, Prabowo Subianto, has since filtered down and spread among their supporters. As such the 2014 election has also become a symptom of frightening social and political divisions affecting Indonesia today and which could boil over, even at local level throughout Indonesia.

These divisions are also being exacerbated by the fact that many elections have and are being held in a relatively short period stoking the animosity. They started with a presidential election in 2014, two sets of local polls split by a Jakarta city run off and back to a presidential poll in 2019.



The first question collides with the second, which is the possibility of religion dominating campaigns in the upcoming elections.

Theoretically, democracy has an objection to "religious intervention" in political affairs. The liberal democratic view is a demarcation between religion and state.

In Indonesia, the relationship between religion and politics has become a critical issue for the debate on democracy.

Today, resistance to political efforts to limit the role of religion in the political realm is becoming part of the phenomenon of what has been called "the religious political movement."

A number of researchers and scholars link the trend to the emergence of "Islam politics." 

In theory, it refers to the ethnopolitics movement. Due to the rise of ethnopolitics — politics as it relates to different ethnic groups — throughout Indonesia, the elections are at risk of being dominated by the majority against minorities.

Some vulnerable groups such as religious minorities will simply find themselves as the targets and victims of the movement. 

It is generally accepted that the ethnopolitics movement and circumstance could be a potential springboard for the majority group in determining, claiming, and controlling socio-political processes and spaces. 

The using of what is known as ethnic, religion, race, and inter-groups (collectively known as SARA) discrimination becomes a strong justification and foundation for violent religious-based actions in Indonesia's elections.

This poses a major threat to Indonesia's status as a democratic, pluralistic and multicultural society.

It is important to note that demographic disruption is the main problem of super-diversity. One serious aspect of this tendency is social intolerance.

A few months after the Jakarta governor election, Barrack Obama, in a July 2017 trip to Indonesia, reminded the government to build (rebuild) tolerance in "diverse Indonesia".

"I don't believe the future favors strongmen. I believe the future favors those who promote tolerance … who are open to differences and learn from everyone," he said. 

This trend will cause a critical situation in the elections if ethnopolitics is allowed to dominate increasingly.


Political Incivility  

A third key issue, mostly influenced by the other two, is called "political incivility."  This is a lack of good manners and attitudes by people engaged in politics.

In Indonesia's context, violence and the religious politics movement are intertwined with the presence of such actors.

As a consequence, intolerance within society has been triggered by this incivility. Intolerance explains the pattern of discriminatory relationships in society, which has not only been manifested in verbal disagreements over different groups and political choices among social and religious groups but has also been expressed through violence.

Indonesia will struggle to stage an orderly and dignified electoral contest when both political and social actors have no political will to demonstrate an insightful and constructive contribution to the process.

It is difficult to accept the fact that these sort of actors appear to be the only ones providing a political education among voters mainly at the grassroots level.

Democratic networks seem to disappear from the election process. 

Violence and religious-based campaigns are more likely to dominate elections where there is a severe lack political awareness among the public awareness and where effective political participation has never been a major concern of the main political and social actors.

Father Max Regus is a priest from Catholic Diocese of Ruteng, Flores. He holds a Ph.D. degree in Social Sciences and Humanities from University of Tilburg, the Netherlands. He is now working on a postdoctoral project entitled 'Religion and Peacebuilding in Asia: A Church-Based Investigation' and the project is supported by the Institute of Missiology Aachen, Germany.


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