“Religious Outbidding in Elections in Myanmar and in Indonesia” by Nyi Nyi Kyaw

2019/34, 3 April 2019

Religion as a potent identity marker is increasingly prone to use, misuse or abuse in elections in Southeast Asia — as witnessed in the legislative elections in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar in November 2015 and now in the campaign for the presidential elections in predominantly Muslim Indonesia later this month. The question, “Who is a better Buddhist, or a better Muslim?”, has been at the centre of  religious outbidding in these elections. By portraying themselves or being portrayed as champions of Buddhism or Islam, elites try to outbid or outperform their electoral rivals.

In Myanmar between 2013 and 2015, Buddhist nationalist monks and people affiliated with Ma Ba Tha, the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, attacked then opposition leader and now State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party as pro-Muslim. At the same time, Ma Ba Tha lavishly praised incumbent President U Thein Sein as the defender of the race and religion for his support of the Ma Ba Tha campaign for the promulgation of  four laws on those matters. “Who is a better Buddhist?” was the key issue raised in this blatant attempt at religiously outbidding Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in support of U Thein Sein.

Those same years saw Daw Aung San Suu Kyi generally avoid directly countering Ma Ba Tha monks’ religious outbidding, which increased in the period prior to the 2015 general elections. The NLD unsuccessfully tried to reach an understanding with Ma Ba Tha. Then, in the two months preceding the elections, the NLD finally moved to counter Ma Ba Tha openly by questioning monks’  defamation of the party and  interference in elections. Nevertheless, even though the NLD neither framed itself as the defender or promoter of Buddhism nor invoked Buddhism in the campaign, it did in the end to accede to Ma Ba Tha’s anti-Muslim stance by not fielding a single Muslim candidate in the elections and thus indirectly proving that it was a pro-Buddhist party.
In Indonesia, we are now witnessing a similar attempt at religious outbidding, as the world’s largest Muslim country, fourth most populous nation, and third largest democracy gears up for the presidential elections scheduled on 17 April 2019. The outbidding largely began in the so-called  ‘212 movement’, which brought together diverse conservative Muslim groups — from conservative traditionalists like the Islamic Defenders Front to Salafists or Salafi-inspired activists. In 2016, the movement toppled the Chinese-Christian governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or “Ahok”, and succeeded in having him jailed for blasphemy. It concurrently accused incumbent President Joko Widodo, or “Jokowi”, of being pro-Ahok because Ahok was Jokowi’s running mate in the 2012 Jakarta gubernatorial election and succeeded him as the Indonesian capital’s governor when Jokowi became president in 2014.

The Ahok case apparently emboldened the conservative Islamist camp. It moved from an anti-Ahok agenda to an anti-Jokowi campaign by pressing Jokowi to improve his Islamic credentials. The conservatives have also aligned themselves with Jokowi’s electoral challenger Prabowo Subianto, who increasingly relies on an Islamist frame in his campaign.  Jokowi could not help swimming with the rising conservative tide, most noticeably by selecting as his vice-presidential running mate the cleric Ma’ruf Amin, the former supreme leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) Islamic mass organization and chairman of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia. Dutifully, Ma’ruf Amin recently asserted, “Jokowi has done so much for Islam.”

NU, the largest Muslim organization in the world, has thrown its full weight behind the Joko Widodo-Ma’ruf Amin ticket. It frames the coming Indonesian elections as an ideological battle between moderate, inclusive Islam and conservative, anti-pluralist Islam. In the third round of the presidential debates, on 17 March 2019, Ma’ruf Amin overtly wooed Muslim voters by quoting the Qur’an and Hadith. Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno, Prabowo Subianto’s vice-presidential running mate, responded by offering to make Ramadan a school holiday and ended his closing statement by also citing the Qur’an.

What do all these electoral campaign messages and platforms signify?  They remind us that religion or religious identity politics remains influential in Southeast Asia, especially at the time of elections. As the cases of Myanmar and Indonesia show, religious outbidding may be externally or internally oriented, or both. In Myanmar, Ma Ba Tha initially targeted Muslims and Islam, in a process of externally oriented outbidding, but later came down on fellow Buddhist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, in a case of internally oriented outbidding. In Indonesia, Islamists first brought down the Chinese-Christian governor, and are now pressing Muslim President Jokowi to offer pro-Muslim concessions.

The rising role of religious outbidding in elections may seem improper or unacceptable from the standpoint of liberal democracy or electoral integrity. However, it is a reality and remains so as long as elites and their supporters seek to make capital out of it for electoral success or other purposes.
Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw is Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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.