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'Identity politics': How Indonesia's presidential race is run

'Identity politics': How Indonesia's presidential race is run

Indonesia's presidential candidate Joko Widodo shakes hands with his opponent Prabowo Subianto as their running mates Ma'ruf Amin and Sandiaga Uno smile after a televised debate in Jakarta, Indonesia January 17, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Willy Kurniawan)

BANTEN, Indonesia: Pride and excitement fills the heart of many residents in Banten as they count down to the presidential election on Apr 17.

For the first time in Indonesian history, the coastal province on the island of Java could soon be known as the home of one of the country’s vice presidents.

The outcome - to a great extent - relies on the influence of a 76-year-old man named Ma’ruf Amin from Tangerang City, who is running with incumbent President Joko Widodo - Jokowi - in a presidential race that will determine the future of Southeast Asia’s largest economy over the next five years.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (centre) and his running mate Ma'ruf Amin (3rd left) walk during a peace declaration for the upcoming general election campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta on Sep 23, 2018. (Adek BERRY/AFP)

His candidacy and Islamic devotion manifested through more than a decade of leading the country’s top Muslim clerical body - the Indonesian Ulema Council - may have stirred doubt and dissatisfaction among secular voters. But in Banten, his presence in the presidential race appears to be well received.

“I’m proud that a vice president candidate comes from Banten. I also hope he could improve our province if he wins the election, as many things here need to be developed,” said college student Lili Yuniarti, 24.

Next week, Lili will join about 192 million voters from 34 provinces in electing the eighth president and vice president of Indonesia. The choice they have to make is between presidential candidate number one Jokowi and Ma’ruf, and presidential candidate number two Prabowo Subianto and prominent businessman Sandiaga Uno - his running mate.

In Banten, the result could be a repeat of the 2014 election with former army general Prabowo winning the majority vote in the province. On the other hand, political observers have also speculated the pendulum could swing in favour of his rival Jokowi this time around, now that he has a "son of Banten" by his side.

"Ma’ruf’s popularity as ‘a son of Banten’ has its value. People here are happy Jokowi picked his running mate from their province,” said socio-political analyst Abdul Hamid from the Sultan Ageng Tirtayasa University in Serang, Banten’s capital city.

Besides Ma’ruf’s origin, Abdul added, his high-profile status in the Islamic circle could also wield influence on Jokowi’s performance in the upcoming polls, where he said discrimination on the grounds of religion against candidates or “identity politics” is at play.

“The presidential election is mostly about ‘identity’. People prefer to choose the ‘identity’ of a candidate rather than looking at real problems. Jokowi’s ‘identity’ isn’t so religious and I can imagine a significant drop in support when this issue is played up. And that’s a test for Ma’ruf Amin,” he said.

"People are using religion as a tool to gain votes and fulfil political interest. Everything is wrapped in the 'religious identity'."

According to the analyst, Ma’ruf’s main role is not to gain votes for Jokowi but to maintain support from Muslim voters in the country, where 87 per cent of its 260 million population follow Islam. 


Based on a recent survey, the identity game seems to have shifted in favour of the incumbent president and his religious running mate.

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies published a poll in March that showed Jokowi and Ma’ruf leading their rivals in several areas, including Banten and West Java. 

The two provinces were Prabowo’s strongholds in the previous election but according to the survey, their voters could have a change of heart come Apr 17.

Of about 420 respondents in both provinces, 47.4 per cent said would vote for Jokowi and Ma’ruf while other 42.1 per cent opted for Prabowo and Sandiaga. One per cent had not made up their mind and the remaining 9.5 per cent gave no answer.

Indonesian president candidate Prabowo Subianto (left) and his running mate Sandiaga Uno (right) gesture as they attend a peace declaration for the upcoming general election campaign at the National Monument in Jakarta on Sep 23, 2018. (Adek BERRY/AFP)

“Ma’ruf’s candidacy is part of our strength. They make an ideal pair,” said Asep Rahmatullah, Jokowi-Maruf’s campaign manager in Banten.

“Given his background as a chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council, Ma’ruf can influence Muslim voters to change their mind. There may be attempts to play up the ‘identity’ but I believe voters are mature and aware of what is going on."


Despite Ma’ruf’s candidacy, the Prabowo-Sandiaga camp remains confident it can secure its stronghold Banten once again. Its provincial deputy campaign manager Masrori told CNA many voters wish to see a stronger and more assertive leader like Prabowo to improve their local economy and create jobs.

Banten is the westernmost province on the island of Java. In 2014, it was one of the strongholds of presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

Last year the province reported the highest unemployment rate in the country, according to the Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics, which reported 496,730 residents in Banten were without jobs.

“Prabowo and Sandiaga represent the people of Banten with their nationalism, idealism and assertiveness. Banten needs leaders who can protect them and remain by their side. We’re optimistic we can win,” said Masrori. “We’re not worried.”

During his campaign in Banten last month, Prabowo’s running mate pledged to create two million jobs over the next five years if his team wins the election. His team’s campaign has attracted the likes of 31-year-old driver Umaidi, who plans to vote for change after five years under Jokowi’s rule.

“Here in Banten, there are many poor people and a lot of them have been neglected. Infrastructure also needs improving in rural areas. Jokowi’s government hasn’t done anything about that for the past five years,” he said.

"We need more changes."

Source: CNA/de(rw)


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