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The Big Read: Religion, fake news take centre stage as divided Indonesia goes to the polls

Amid increasing religious polarisation, Indonesians are going to the voting booths more divided than ever, experts say.

The Big Read: Religion, fake news take centre stage as divided Indonesia goes to the polls

An official prepares ballot boxes and other voting materials in Jakarta ahead of the elections. (Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo)

JAKARTA: Along some streets in Indonesia, election banners of the two candidates vying to be the president of the world’s third largest democracy — and its most populous Muslim nation — are peppered with phrases written in Arabic.

In a country where the national language is Bahasa Indonesia, such banners reflect how religion has become a major factor in the presidential election, which is held once every five years.

For example, in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, the banners of presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto carry Arabic phrases, which translate to “in the name of God” and “God willing” that he should be the new president.

Elsewhere, in some areas in Sumatra and West and Central Java, which are seen to be bastions of Islamic conservatism, the banners of Mr Joko Widodo – the incumbent whose ethnicity and religiosity have been questioned for years by his detractors – carry similar Arabic phrases.

Come Wednesday (Apr 17), some 192 million Indonesians will head to the ballot box, in a rematch of the 2014 polls, which saw Mr Widodo beating Mr Subianto by 6 percentage points.

For the first time, voters will choose the president and members of the national parliament on the same day. Nevertheless, elections for provincial legislatures and district/city councils have been largely overshadowed by the presidential polls.

READ: Old rivals face off in Indonesia ahead of elections. a commentary

At the weekend, with just a few more days to go before voting, Mr Widodo is leading the challenge with 20 points, according to independent pollsters. But Mr Subianto — an ex-general and the former son-in-law of the late Indonesian strongman Suharto — has rejected the validity of such polls, claiming he has a double-digit lead.

Amid increasing religious polarisation, Indonesians are going to the voting booths more divided than ever. The proliferation of fake news, which has been dogging the presidential campaigns, is threatening to make matters even worse.

An official prepares ballot boxes and other voting materials in Jakarta ahead of the elections. (Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo)

In what is seen by political analysts as a closely-fought contest, the two presidential candidates have stressed the need for Indonesia to remain secular, amid mounting criticism from progressives and liberals that the country is veering to the far-right.

But their actions in the run-up to the elections have left some questioning if they are merely paying lip service.

READ: Inclusiveness, pluralism dominates Prabowo’s final Indonesian election campaign

Dr Alexander Arifianto, a research fellow at the Singapore-based S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) who studies Indonesian politics, said: “Religion did not really dominate the political scene, even in the last presidential polls in 2014. But identity politics is coming to the fore in this year’s elections, deepening the polarisation and division.” He added:

What you have now are two camps – the conservative Muslims and the progressive Muslims as well as non-Muslims. There is an ‘us versus them mentality’.


If the banners and other aspects of the presidential campaigns are any indication, analysts interviewed said the two candidates are increasingly pandering to conservative Muslims, with religion taking centre stage and playing an even bigger role in this year’s elections.

The division is exacerbated primarily by the potent combination of rising Islamic conservatism, especially in the last three years following the downfall of a Chinese-Christian governor, as well as the circulation of falsehoods that focus on religious issues.

A poster on the street in Surabaya features presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Sandiaga Uno, who will contest against incumbent President Joko Widodo and Ma’ruf Amin in the election on Apr 17, 2019. (Photo: Pichayada Promchertchoo)

Both Mr Widodo, 57, better known as Jokowi, and Mr Subianto, 67, have repeatedly pledged to uphold the country’s constitution and state ideology of “Pancasila”, which places emphasis on religious tolerance and unity in diversity.

In the 2014 presidential election, Mr Widodo’s progressive stance on racial and religious issues endeared himself to Muslims and non-Muslims, primarily Chinese Indonesians.

READ: Jokowi’s ban on radical groups and Pancasila’s uncomfortable past, a commentary

Some of his ardent supporters, however, were left disappointed in September last year after Mr Widodo chose his running mate — 75-year-old firebrand Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin.

It was a surprising choice that caused a stir since Mr Ma’ruf had in the past slammed religious minorities, forbade Muslims from exchanging Christmas greetings and supported protests against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was also Mr Widodo’s political ally, during his blasphemy case.

Mr Widodo’s choice of running mate — coupled with the fact that it came after the controversial imprisonment of Mr Purnama in 2017 for blasphemy against Islam, an issue which Mr Widodo had steered clear from — raised questions whether he was trying to court conservative Muslims. 

In a scathing commentary in The New York Times, Indonesian novelist Eka Kurniawan said those events signaled that Indonesian politics “is now backed” into a corner. “No matter who ends up being president, conservative Islamic groups, backed by radical groups, will win – have already won – the election.”

Some political analysts said that Islamic conservatism has been creeping into Indonesian politics over the last decade, but intensified in the lead-up, during and the aftermath of Mr Purnama’s blasphemy case, which led to downfall of the once-rising political star.

A supporter of former Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama wears a t-shirt of him near Mobile Police Brigade (Brimob) headquarters in Depok, south of Jakarta, January 24, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan)

Hence, they are not surprised to see the presidential candidates and their running mates playing the religious card in the upcoming polls.

For example, Mr Subianto’s running mate businessman Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno – who is perceived by many as not being religious – has been sighted wearing turbans at some campaign events.

Dr Norshahril Saat, a fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute researching on Indonesian politics, pointed out that during the 2014 polls, Mr Widodo had to grapple with accusations that he was of Chinese origin and not “Muslim enough”. Hence, the president knows he has to shore up support among conservative Muslims this time round.

As a strategy, his pick of Mr Ma’ruf boosts and legitimises Mr Widodo’s religious credentials, Dr Norshahril added.

This has borne fruits, with analysts saying that Mr Subianto has been struggling to mount religious attacks against his rival.

Mr Ericssen, an independent political analyst and a Singapore-based contributor for the Indonesian daily Kompas, said this year’s presidential race is a “battle of who is ‘more Islamic’, who has stronger Islamic credentials, who is more pious and who can impress Muslim voters better”.

READ: Two visions for the 'unlikely democracy', as Indonesians head to polls this month, a commentary

But Ms Titi Anggraini Mashudi, the executive director of non-governmental organisation Election and Democracy, cautioned that the candidates’ actions only deepen identity politics and have created an “air of superiority” among conservative Muslims.

“They see themselves as better than the minority non-Muslims. What concerns me most is when voters choose a candidate based on identity politics. We cannot fall into that trap,” said Ms Mashudi who added:

We have to protect the minorities and ensure they are not discriminated.

National University of Singapore’s political analyst Bilveer Singh also expressed another worry – given the rise of Islamist sentiments and segregationist views in Indonesia and Malaysia, this could have a spillover effect on Singapore.

Nevertheless, Indonesians spoken to do not think that Indonesia risks losing its pluralism and becoming a full-fledged Islamic state.

READ: 'Big decision for country’: Indonesians in Singapore turn up in droves to vote in elections

Engineer Rizwan Suman, 45, who is a Muslim and lives in Jakarta, said: “Don’t forget that our culture and customs play a huge part in our lives, and being a complete Islamic state could erase all that. I don’t think many Indonesians can accept that.”

Entrepreneur Abel Sinarwan, 33, a non-Muslim who lives in Yogyakarta, said that he felt assured by the candidates’ pledges to uphold the Pancasila. “It is for the good of the country that it remains pluralistic, and the candidates know this too,” he added.

Mr Ma’ruf hailed from the Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, which is a moderate group that backs Mr Widodo.

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)

Mr Subianto, meanwhile, has the support of opposition parties which are backed by hardline Islamic groups.

Noting the presence of Islamic influences in both camps, Dr Arifianto said it was clear that Islamic actors are “going to shape the presidency”, adding: 

Islam’s agenda could take centre stage.


Mr Widodo is known for his trademark white shirt, with sleeves rolled up close to the elbows and black pants. Aside from his attire, he is also known for his cool demeanour, not one to get agitated easily, said observers.

But on Mar 23, he made a Facebook post that was quite out of character. In the post written in Bahasa Indonesia, Mr Widodo appeared to have lost his patience over the fake news circulating about him.

The president said that he had “been patient and silent about the fake news and hoaxes about him and his family for the past four to five years”, adding:

But today, I would like to send this message: I will fight against such falsehoods and hoaxes. This is not just for me, but for the country’s interest.

With Indonesia having about 130 million Internet users, half the size of the population, there have been concerns over the scourge of fake news in the country.

Most notable among them is a video which claimed that Mr Widodo would ban the Muslim call to prayer and legalise same-sex marriage if re-elected. Three Indonesian housewives linked to the video have been arrested and could face up to six years in prison for spreading hate speech and violating a sweeping electronic information law.

Last month, Mr Widodo blamed fake news for a drop in his electability in West Java, the country’s most populous province. He lost to Mr Subianto in the province in the last polls.

Mr Subianto also has had his fair share of fake news, among them, that he plans to create an Islamic caliphate and that his running mate is gay.

According to the country’s Communications and Information Ministry, 130 of more than 1,200 online political hoaxes and fake news detected between August 2018 and March this year were related to presidential candidates, political parties and election organisers.

The ministry started monitoring the spread of falsehoods in August last year after Mr Widodo and Mr Subianto declared their candidacies.

News wire agency Reuters reported that even the candidates’ campaign teams were funding sophisticated social media operations to spread disinformation through fake accounts on behalf of the candidates. Both camps denied this, it reported.

READ: Inside Indonesia’s ‘fake news’ war room, fighting political hoaxes in election season

Political analysts said the worsening problem of fake news further divides the nation, especially when they touch on racial and religious issues.

Mr Ericssen said: “This election is the climax of the identity politics war between two presidential candidates. Social media has worsened it by escalating tensions. The current proliferation of fake news in Indonesia is really unprecedented and scary.”

“While there is an assumption that it is the lowly educated who share the fake news inconsiderately, it is not necessarily true. There are many educated folks, including teachers, who share fake news without really checking the content,” he added.

Dumping and sharing fake news on social media channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as messaging platforms like WhatsApp create an echo-chamber effect, said Mr Ericssen, which has “worsened the polarisation”.

Young workers are exposed to confronting content and have benchmarks of 100 pieces of content per shift. (Photo: Jack Board)

Ms Mashudi said the proclivity among the electorate to forward fake news to others does not improve political discourse. In the end, it could lead to a situation where there is a lack of discussion on ideas, leading people to make their own assumptions.

In response to queries, a Facebook spokesperson said that it has been ramping up efforts to safeguard the integrity of the Indonesian elections.

For one, it has temporarily disallowed electoral advertisements purchased from outside Indonesia if it references politicians or political parties or attempts to encourage or suppress voting. Identification is done through a mix of automated and human review.


In 2014, Mr Widodo, who had burst onto the political scene as the governor of Jakarta, was seen then as a beacon of hope for lacklustre economy.

Being a fresh face and coming from outside the establishment, many Indonesians felt that Mr Widodo — who had been compared to former United States president Barack Obama — could lift the country to new heights.

His campaign pledges that year included a 7 per cent annual economic growth and boosting infrastructure.

However, last year’s growth, at 5.17 per cent, fell short of the target. While Mr Widodo saw through the building of Jakarta’s first Mass Rapid Transit line, it was an idea mooted by his predecessors.

On top of that, some analysts pointed out that a number of his infrastructure projects — such as the 938km trans-Java highway, which opened in January, connecting Jakarta to Surabaya — do not really help the poor.

READ: Indonesia searches for that elusive broad-based growth, a commentary

Indonesians travelling through the highway have to pay a toll of 660,500 rupiah (US$47). “It is not affordable for most Indonesians,” said Dr Arifianto.

Boosting the country’s economy and improving the lives of the poor have been key issues in both Mr Widodo and Mr Subianto’s campaigns. The last of their five presidential debates, which will take place on Saturday evening, will centre on the economy and taxation.

For Mr Widodo, the country’s slow economic growth is a chink in his armour, with some analysts saying that the elections could be a referendum on his performance on the economic front.

For Mr Subianto, it is the “perfect opportunity” to gain an upper hand. Analysts said that Mr Subianto has painted a bleak economic picture, where the plight of Indonesia’s poor remains unresolved and wages are stagnant.

A view of Jakarta's skyline. (Photo: AFP/BAY ISMOYO/File Photo) A general view shows under-construction buildings among the city skyline in Jakarta. (Photo: BAY ISMOYO/AFP)

Dr Arifianto said that Mr Widodo’s economic track record makes him “vulnerable”. “He will definitely defend his track record, but the polls will be the judge of that,” he added.

Furthermore, Mr Widodo’s messaging on economic issues such as cost of living does not seem to resonate with the poor, most of whom have little or no education at all.

For instance, he has been talking about setting up policy cards for different social assistance programmes relating to healthcare and education.

On the other hand, Mr Subianto’s messaging is clear — “We just want to help the poor and lower prices”, noted Dr Arifianto.

READ: Real politics finally as Indonesia takes to TV for presidential debates, a commentary

However, Assoc Prof Singh pointed out that the slow economic growth cannot be blamed on Mr Widodo alone. There was the global economic slump as well as the ongoing trade war between the United States and China, which has also affected Indonesia’s economy.

Saying that the polls would not be a referendum on Mr Widodo’s track record, Mr Ericssen noted that his ardent supporters would have a “realistic expectation”, knowing that it will “take more than five or even more than 10 years to solve burgeoning problems that have been built up over the decades”.

READ: Indonesia dreams of becoming a maritime fulcrum but obstacles stand in the way, a commentary

Boosting the economy and lowering prices are issues that Indonesians spoken to are concerned with.

Mr Sudirman Bie, a 64-year-old who sells old stamps and signs on a cart, said that the prices of plane, bus and train tickets, for instance, have tripled during Mr Widodo’s first term. “I supported him in 2014, but I feel that he does not care for the poor as what he tries to portray,” he added.

For younger Indonesians like 22-year-old lawyer Robert Darmawan, embarking on economic programmes such as digitisation would help to boost the economy. “Young Indonesians want good jobs. Digitisation also ensures that the country is not left behind,” he added.

A view of colourful houses at the Kampung Pelangi village in Semarang, Indonesia, May 20, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Yulius Satria Wijaya via REUTERS

Dr Norshahril said that though Mr Widodo has yet to fulfil some of his 2014 pledges, he remains popular. He added: 

Prabowo campaigns very hard, but Jokowi is still the favourite. It’s an election for him to lose.


Regardless of whoever emerges the winner, the outcome of Indonesia’s presidential polls will not have a significant impact on Singapore, said political analysts.

During Mr Widodo’s first term, both countries have enjoyed good ties and cooperation on issues ranging from business, military and counter-terrorism efforts, they noted. And these will continue if he is re-elected.

Should Mr Subianto come out victorious, such cooperation is unlikely to change, given that he has close ties with Singapore, Assoc Prof Singh pointed out.

Mr Subianto, who met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last November, has previously proclaimed admiration for Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Assoc Prof Singh said: “Though known for being tough and nationalistic, (Mr Subianto) is highly realistic and hence, I don’t see much change in Jakarta’s policies towards Singapore.”

The analysts noted that over the decades, Singapore and Indonesia have forged strong relations. Unlike with neighbouring Malaysia, Singapore’s ties with Indonesia have not been marred by major bilateral disputes, they added.

During the campaign trail, both candidates have rarely spoken about foreign policies, or mentioned Singapore specifically. There was, however, an instance where Mr Subianto’s campaign spokesperson said Indonesia should control its own assets, citing Singapore’s management of the Flight Information Region (FIR) over the Riau Islands as an example.

Analysts said that from time to time, bilateral issues would crop up, such as the FIR and the tax agreement which Indonesia had previously said benefited Singapore more. Dr Arifianto said:

Nothing more than that. There are no deep rifts between both nations.

While both candidates do not appear to place emphasis on the country’s foreign policies, Mr Keith Leong, an analyst from political consultancy firm KRA Group, said that “nationalism is Indonesia’s default posture”.

“Only very naive people would expect Indonesian leaders to willingly forego what they see as its national interests, whether it is in terms of trade, investment or the treatment of its nationals overseas,” he said.

Nevertheless, Dr Arifianto reiterated: 

To average Indonesian voters, especially those who are less educated and poor, foreign policies will not solve their problems at home.

Source: Today/sl


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