Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world spanning over 17,000 islands, held its Presidential elections on 17 April, which saw the revival of the 2014 rivalry between the incumbent Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, a retired general and former son-in-law of Suharto.

Widodo’s return to power last month has been accompanied by the emergence of identity-based politics and Islamic polarization which have shaped the story of 2019 Presidential elections. This religious polarization has the potential to shape the political future of the world’s largest Islamic country.

The 2014 elections saw two distinct candidates – a developmentalist Widodo who emphasized on communal pluralization and Prabowo who was seen to carry populist policies and having Islamist allies. The 2019 elections saw the same old Prabowo but a different Jokowi – a developmentalist with Islamist allies – thus putting emphasis on Islamic identity politics.

The emphasis on Islamic identity politics in Indonesia reemerged with the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections (governor elections). These elections were preceded by mass sectarian mobilizations by hardline Islamists against an alleged blasphemous statement made by then-incumbent Jakarta governor and a long time Jokowi ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) against the Quran. The mobilization led to some of Indonesia’s largest demonstrations – the ‘411’ and the ‘212’ movement – which set the base for the change in public opinion about Ahok who lost the elections despite having strong governance record. Ahok lost against the candidates nominated by Prabowo Subianto’s Greater Indonesia Movement Party and the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Prosperous Justice Party. This victory enthused the opposition to perpetuate the same exposed cleavage of political division along the sectarian lines in the lead up to the Presidential elections, thus setting in an environment of anxiety for Jokowi.

In order to counter this growing narrative, Jokowi adopted an accommodative stance – the first step in this direction was allowing Ahok to be charged and prosecuted under blasphemy charges. Next, he embraced  Ma’ruf Amin, the most powerful Islamic Cleric (ulama) of Indonesia and the head of Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) – Indonesia’s largest (and a moderate) Muslim organization, as his running mate, thus also ensuring NU’s support for his re-election. Amin’s selection came as a surprise as he had played a key role in the anti-Ahok campaign and due to his history of being a vocal supporter of fatwas against the right of the religious minorities and LGBT people in Indonesia.

Along with accommodation, Jokowi ceded to repression to subvert the radical Islamists – such as the detention of political figures on the eve of ‘212 movement,’ and later a policy in 2017 which allowed the government to unilaterally disband any organization that it felt was violating country’s secular state ideology of Pancasila. Thus, the polarized electoral atmosphere since 2017, also dented the slowly consolidated democratic ethos of the country.

Subianto on his part followed the set template of the 2017 elections and aligned with hardline Islamists such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), Islamic Community Forum (FUI), ‘212 alumni’ (formerly known as Defending Islam activists) and various others in order to strengthen the narrative of Jokowi-government being ‘anti-Islamic’ owing to the president’s close association with Ahok. Subianto also received support from people and organizations affiliated with Muhammadiyah – the second largest Islamic organization of Indonesia. While NU and Muhammadiyah both follow a moderate theological approach, their infighting and varied policy views led to diverging allegiances of their members during the Presidential elections.

The 2017 governor elections and the 2019 presidential elections have set a tone for the success of religious polarization in the Indonesian political landscape. While the hardliners won in 2017, the moderates managed to hold their fort in 2019. Yet, in order to safeguard their fortress, the latter has fallen into the conservative bait by digressing from their moderate tone. This was evident when Jokowi during his campaigning, publically honed soft Islamism by thanking Muslim preachers and visiting Mecca. Further, what makes this slow digression towards conservative politics more worrisome is the fact that it is automatically aligning itself with the growing conservative turn around the world.

For Indonesia, the challenge stiffens even further as the conservatism, which was earlier localized, is rising steadily through mainstream politics. In an earlier instance, the statue of Guan Yu – a third-century Chinese General significant to Buddhism and Confucianism and worshipped as a god – faced protests for its removal from hardline Islamic groups who called it a blasphemous behemoth. Even though the statue was never removed, it was covered and remains the same till date, thus suggesting a victory for the hardliners.

The same success aggravated to protests against Ahok in 2017 which too were accommodated by the government when they allowed his prosecution. The growing polarization between the moderates and the fundamentalists and former’s failure in holding their own fort empowers the latter to increasingly target religious and ethnic minorities through terror networks. This remains a major concern with the steady rise of extremist factions combined with the slow but definite growth of conservative Islamist theology from the Middle East (read Wahhabism) within Indonesian Islamic organizations. In the recent past, the ceding of mainstream space to fundamentalists has led to ISIS-led terror attacks in Jakarta in 2016 and church attacks in Surabaya in 2018 with the latter being a specific attack on the minorities. This sets in a difficult tone for the future of Indonesian politics as well as for the country as a whole which until now has championed the rare combination of Islam and democracy.

Image credit: Provincial Government of Jakarta. The image is in the public domain in Indonesia. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)

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