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Commentary: Looks like Indonesia has rejected divisive identity politics

Incumbent President Joko Widodo is leading Prabowo Subianto with a larger margin than in 2014, an affirmation of Indonesians’ support for his moderate agenda, says ISEAS-Yusof Ishak’s Norshahril Saat and Najib Burhani.

Commentary: Looks like Indonesia has rejected divisive identity politics

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo and his running mate Ma'ruf Amin react after a quick count result during the Indonesian elections in Jakarta, Indonesia April 17, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su

SINGAPORE: Going by the quick count results thus far, Indonesia’s incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) and his running mate Ma’ruf Amin look set to win the headline race.

Official results on this largest-ever, one-day national exercise, involving 192.8 million registered voters will only be declared in May.

READ: The mind-boggling challenge of Indonesia’s election logistics, a commentary

Still, early figures show the Jokowi-Ma’ruf pairing securing about 7.8 to 10.6 percentage points more than their challengers, Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno, according to at least five pollsters.

What this means is that Jokowi may win by a larger margin than in 2014, when he last faced Prabowo and won by a slimmer 6.3 percentage points. The president looks set to leave this election with a stronger mandate from the people.

While many observers on this election predicted that identity politics will divide Indonesia society, it seems voters have rejected this notion.

Will there be a challenge mounted to dispute these results? These quick counts are consistent with survey results conducted before the election. 

However, Prabowo has already disputed these unofficial results, claiming he has won the race.


Like any other Indonesian presidential elections, winning the hearts and minds of voters in Java, home to more than half of Indonesia’s 261 million-strong population, is key. This is where Jokowi and Ma’ruf are surprisingly performing better in many areas than predicted.

For example, in Jakarta, Jokowi and Prabowo are going toe-to-toe in the polls, even though many had expected Prabowo would easily trounce the incumbent president there.

The capital has seen divisive identity politics played up by the opposition camp for years. In the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election, politicians used the race and religious cards to discredit and defeat incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), Jokowi’s ally.

Muslim hardline protesters cover their faces as police fire tear gas during a protest against Ahok in Jakarta. (Photo: REUTERS)

Jokowi is also winning in areas he was expected to win, such as in East Java, with 66 per cent of the vote. 

It looks like Ma’ruf’s presence in the Jokowi camp may have made the difference, as it helped mobilise Islamic boarding schools affiliated to the moderate Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) to support the president, especially in East Java, NU’s stronghold.

Ma’ruf’s entry as Jokowi’s running mate may not have been popular with Jokowi’s more moderate supporters, but his position as head of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI), the country’s top clerical umbrella body may have shored up the top man’s religious credentials.

As predicted, Jokowi won with a very big margin of about 77 per cent in Central Java, his party PDI-P’s stronghold.

Even Prabowo’s and Sandiaga’s gains in West Java, the battleground of the election with one of the largest and most conservative population, where they are winning about 60 per cent of the votes, could not offset the setbacks suffered.

The results in Java alone may not determine the results. Prabowo and Sandiaga are expected to do better in Sumatra, where they are banking on high voter turnout to negate losses. In West Sumatra, for instance, Prabowo is winning about 85 per cent of the votes.

READ:  The contest in Indonesia will be closer than expected, a commentary

The official results will be worth watching.

Joko Widodo (right) and Prabowo Subianto during the 2014 presidential election campaign. (Photo: AFP/ROMEO GACAD)


Hardline groups seemed to have failed in undermining Jokowi’s popularity and electability across most parts of Indonesia.

Even at the polling station closest to scholar Habib Rizieq Syihab’s home in Petamburan, Jakarta, which serves as the headquarters for the Islamist group Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a group that led those massive protests against Ahok two years ago, Jokowi swept almost all votes by winning 225 votes with Prabowo receiving only 5 votes.

Clearly, conservative groups behind the Prabowo-Sandi team have not been able to replicate their success in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election.

If Jokowi wins, he will have less to worry about dealing with such elements, a segment that has continuously sought to discredit him by accusing him of not being religious enough.

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)


If these early poll results hold, what this means is that the country’s narrative on religion and identity has been seized back by the moderates. NU has been the face of moderate Islam for a long time and has been a powerful ally to the winning pair.

Jokowi’s and Ma’ruf’s victory may mean NU becoming an integral part of the government, with the organisation holding huge political sway. It helps that Ma’ruf is the spiritual guide of the organisation, apart from being the chairman of the MUI.

The upside is that it will be hard to criticise the new government on religious grounds, since they have the NU’s backing.

The danger is that NU could become the single-most most dominant force on religious issues. The question is whether they will exercise the same religious tolerance towards other forms of Islam and allow for a plurality of practices and beliefs, with this newfound unspoken monopoly.

It was the Nahdlatul Ulama's tradition that brought me back to reality,” Tsauri shared. (Photo: AFP/Adek Berry) Nahdlatul Ulama is the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia. (Photo: AFP/Adek Berry)

Moderate Indonesians will also be watching whether Jokowi’s larger win will lead him down the path of strongman politics and what he will do to protect human rights. 

When the president passed a ban on radical groups in 2017, many were concerned the move could potentially muffle civil society groups. 

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


The mood for the Jokowi camp may be jubilant for now. Jokowi and Ma’ruf have a chance to help reconcile Indonesian society, once polarised into two distinct opposing camps, and try to heal fresh wounds opened up by a bitterly fought political rivalry during these elections.

In his speech after the election, Jokowi has started to call on Indonesians to reunite. He will no doubt need the help of Prabowo, who has yet to concede defeat, to show graciousness and call for national solidarity in any eventual concession speech.

Norshahril Saat is Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and Co-coordinator of the Indonesian Studies Programme. Najib Burhani is Visiting Fellow at the same institute.

Source: CNA/sl


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