“Jokowi’s New Candidate for Vice-president and the Rise of Conservatism” by Norshahril Saat

2018/83, 11 August 2018

Ending weeks of speculation, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) officially declared cleric Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate for the 2019 presidential elections. The declaration only came one day before the deadline for parties to shortlist potential names for the race. Divisions within the coalition that backs the president’s bid for his second term might have caused the delay. The coalition backing Jokowi—known as the Indonesian Working Coalition—includes parties PDI-P, Golkar, Hanura, PKB, PPP, Nasdem, PSI, Perindo, and PKPI. Another name rumoured to be Jokowi’s running mate was Mohammad Mahfud Mahmodin (also known as Mahfud M D) who is also an Islamic scholar. Mahfud was former Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court and widely seen as a “moderate” leader.

By contrast, Ma’ruf Amin is a conservative ulama (religious scholar) who has issued many controversial religious rulings (to be discussed shortly). Given Ma’ruf’s track record, will he be a boon and bane to Jokowi’s re-election bid?

The fact that Jokowi had to choose between Ma’ruf Amin or Mahfud MD shows that he is eager to boost his Islamic image in the upcoming elections. Immediately after confirming Ma’ruf’s name, the team’s tagline is “Politician-religious scholar cooperation for the country’s progress”. Jokowi is aware how by not managing conservative Muslim’s sentiments, witnessed during the Aksi Bela Islam protests in 2016 against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), will be politically costly for him. Jokowi must have also sensed that religion also shaped the electoral outcome in some provinces during the recent local elections (Pilkada). Hence, a figure like Ma’ruf will be able to provide that cushion the angst within the Muslim community after the Ahok affair.

The bigger question is how will Ma’ruf affect Jokowi’s campaign in the run up to the 2019 elections. Since 2015, Ma’ruf is the spiritual guide for NU. Ma’ruf is also currently the chairman of the Ulama Council of Indonesia (MUI). While some argue that MUI is a powerful organisation with a huge following in the country, it is small compared to organisations such as NU (Revival of the Ulama) and Muhammadiyah. In fact, majority of MUI members are concurrently NU and Muhammadiyah members as well. When MUI was formed by President Suharto in 1975, it generally worked closely with the New Order regime. It was only after the fall of the New Order in 1998 that the organisation began to express different views from the government. Still, internal divisions within the organisation weakened its lobbying capacity.

MUI however became more influential during the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono government. Ma’ruf played an active role in the organisation as the head of the fatwa committee. In 2005, MUI issued a famous fatwa called SIPILIS (anti secularism, pluralism, and liberalism) which firebrand groups used to justify them harassing individuals and activists promoting alternative viewpoints. The fatwa was signed and endorsed by Ma’ruf himself. Ma’ruf also approved the anti-Ahmadiyah fatwa, which was not helpful in mitigating violence against the followers of the minority sect. In 2007, Ma’ruf was invited to join the Wantimpres (Presidential Advisory Council). Ma’ruf was also very influential in the Islamic finance sector, an played an instrumental role in carving a role for MUI in Islamic banking and halal certification.

Despite his conservative thinking, since 2015, Ma’ruf has reinvented himself to be a defender of progressivism. For instance, he became a proponent of Islam Nusantara (Archipelagic Islam): religious teachings that respect regional norms and culture and not puritanical. Observably, both conservatives and progressive within NU also embraced Ma’ruf and made him the organisation’s spiritual guide. This is the image he is likely to emphasise ahead of the 2019 polls. On the other hand, Jokowi will seek to benefit from Ma’ruf Islamic public persona and charisma.

Jokowi’s decision to invite Ma’ruf is clearly a political calculation, to make sure his rivals will not capitalise on Islamic issues or black campaign against him. Jokowi is clearly courting the Muslim vote, especially the conservatives. The bigger question is whether Ma’ruf will define Jokowi’s Islamic agenda? Although the progressives in the Jokowi administration will likely check the likes of Ma’ruf, the president has to be mindful that Ma’ruf may push his conservative agenda into the administration, similar to what MUI tried to do under the SBY government.

Dr Norshahril Saat is Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. He is the author of The State, Ulama and Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.