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Widodo silences Muslim critics with new running mate

Indonesian president's pick of hard-line cleric Ma'ruf Amin to shore up 2019 poll bid not good news for progressives

Keith Loveard, Jakarta

Keith Loveard, Jakarta

Updated: August 14, 2018 04:51 AM GMT
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Widodo silences Muslim critics with new running mate

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (front left) and the head of Indonesian Ulema Council Maruf Amin (center) submit their documents to election commission officials in Jakarta on Aug. 10, during their registration for the 2019 presidential election as president and vice president candidates. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP)

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Few political decisions can have been as controversial or unexpected as Indonesian President Joko Widodo's bid to seek re-election next April with conservative Muslim cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate.

Amin had been mentioned as a possible choice but few saw this as having much credibility. More highly favored was Mahfud MD, a former defense minister and head of the Constitutional Court who also ticks all the right boxes for the Muslim camp.

Even Mahfud believed he had the nomination sewn up, admitting his surprise when Amin was announced as the president's choice.

Amin, a senior leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country's largest Muslim organization, also serves as head of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI).

He certainly cements Widodo's standing with conservative Muslims but is considered way too conservative by those who had hoped to see Widodo adopt a more progressive position.

Andreas Harsono, a local researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a comment to Reuters that Amin had overseen a rise in religious intolerance, noting he has in the past issued fatwa (edicts) condemning religious and gender minorities.

Amin also condemned former Jakarta governor Basuki ("Ahok") Tjahaja Purnama and helped to mobilize the so-called "212 movement" that ramped up pressure against the Christian ethnic-Chinese governor over an ill-advised comment on the Koran.

The movement is named after the date it launched a mass demonstration in Jakarta demanding his arrest on blasphemy charges, on Dec. 12, 2016. This ultimately led to Purnama standing trial and being sentenced to two years in jail.

Despite this, some hard-line Muslims have expressed concern about Widodo's choice of Amin.

Kafil Yamin, who enjoys a strong following on social media, said he "is not being nominated, he's being thrown into a pool of rats."

However, not everyone has opposed the decision.

Some have pointed to how Amin supports the state ideology of Pancasila, which accepts a variety of religions and calls for a humanitarian approach to government. Amin has also stated that a single religion is not suitable for Indonesia.

Others argue that his intervention in the Ahok case was designed to calm tensions, not inflame them, and in more recent times Amin has called for the former governor to be pardoned.

While some businessmen have criticized Widodo's choice, arguing that it was more important to focus on the economy, Indonesian Employers' Association (Apindo) Chairman Hariyadi Sukamdani praised Widodo's pick.

He said he hoped the president in his second term would focus more on implementing his economic agenda, with Amin acting as his attack dog to ward off jibes from hard-line groups.

If Widodo is re-elected next year, Amin should be able to soften the attacks from his hard-line critics, most of whom will be content just to have pushed the president closer to their corner. 

It is not clear at this point if Amin will have much to offer on the economic front. He has gone on record as stating that Indonesia should be self-sufficient in food and therefore food imports should be scrapped, a position that is likely to create havoc in agricultural markets.

Such an unorthodox view is likely to see him sidelined on such issues. It is very possible that economists in the cabinet will run rings around him when it comes to the technicalities of Indonesia's status quo and future direction.

His support for Shariah will probably cause little harm, although given the relatively slow uptake of sharia banking, we are unlikely to see any sort of revolution in that area.

The closing of nominations on Aug. 10 also saw another conundrum resolved.

Prabowo Subianto, the former general who lost to Widodo in the 2014 polls, a man who was reportedly in two minds about chancing his luck again, will run with Sandiaga Uno, the deputy governor of Jakarta, at his side.

That decision was not reached without some controversy of its own.

Subianto had hoped to see the Democratic Party of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono join his coalition. But a meeting at Yudhyono's house on the afternoon of Aug. 9 resulted in Subianto leaving abruptly, telling reporters later that "consultations" were ongoing.

He then holed up at his own residence with the leaders of the other members of his coalition, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the National Mandate Party (PAN).

They had been pushing hard for Subianto to choose one of them as his running mate.

An allegation, floated by a member of Yudhoyono's Democratic Party, that Uno had offered to give each of the coalition members 500 billion rupiah (US$35 million) suggested that the 2019 presidential race had turned into transactional politics at its worst.

Uno has the money to make such payments. A successful finance professional before developing an interest in politics with Subianto's Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra), he was estimated by one financial magazine in 2016 to have amassed a personal fortune of more than $800 million.

His 10 months as deputy governor of Jakarta have not, however, shown much talent for governance. His one big idea of creating talent-spotting agencies across the city to foster entrepreneurial talent has gone nowhere.

The National Movement to Safeguard the Ulema Council's Fatwa (GNPF-Ulema), which led the movement to oust Purnama as Jakarta governor at the end of 2016, was unimpressed by the choice. Leading figures said Widodo had been smarter than Subianto in choosing one of their own as his vice-presidential nominee.

The conclusion appeared to be that Subianto had to accept Uno and his cash or lack the means to fund a campaign and realize his long-held dream of leading the country.

In doing so, he has inevitably weakened the resolve of his coalition partners. That hardly sounds like strong collateral heading into a battle with the incumbent, who pollsters rate well ahead of his rival.

For Widodo, the choice of Amin was a pragmatic move that sidelines his hard-line Muslim critics, in the belief that his supporters will stay loyal. But many liberal Indonesians were debating a different choice — golput, or white paper, the Indonesian acronym for a blank vote.

In piecing together a powerful coalition with conservative forces within Indonesia's Islamic circles to ensure a second term in power, Widodo appears to have willingly sacrificed the hopes of a generation of those looking for a more forward-looking nation.

Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst.  

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