The 2020 Regional Elections in Indonesia: The Use and Abuse of Religion

Indonesia has laws that seek to deter the politicisation of religion. This will prove to be challenging, especially with the regional elections round the corner.

A woman casts her ballot in Banda Aceh on 25 April 2019. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin, AFP)
Ahmad Najib Burhani

Ahmad Najib Burhani

30 October 2020

Come 9 December, Indonesia will have regional elections in 270 regions across the country covering nine provinces, 224 regencies and 37 municipalities. One of the recurring issues has been the politicisation of religion, as seen in the 2016 gubernatorial election in Jakarta between Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama and Anies Baswedan, as well as the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections between Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto. Unsurprisingly, the question on the potential politicisation of religion remains pertinent and has been raised by some analysts.

According to Gorana Ognjenovic and Jasna Jozelic, politicisation of religion can be understood as the use, or more precisely the abuse, of religion as political means to achieve political goals. Bonar Tigor Naipospos of the Setara Institute proffers a contrarian view, and predicts that the politicisation of religion in the upcoming regional elections would be small. This is based on the argument that some politicians, by learning from the 2016 gubernatorial election in Jakarta, have understood the destructive effects that the politicisation of religion has on social cohesion. This is of course an idealistic and ethical reason which sometimes goes against empirical facts seen in society. A more grounded reason for the potential decline of the politicisation of religion is the fact that each region would be busy with their own elections and could not be orchestrated into a single national theme of campaigning based on politicised religion. As such, each region has their own coalition of political parties and unique pair of candidates which could not be cohered into a simple pattern of religious line or mapping.

Both the idealistic and grounded types of reasoning will be tested in the elections. Several weeks away from the December elections, however, signs of politicisation are already appearing. Recent political banners, flyers and campaigns on social media have been tinged with religious overtones. In South Tangerang, for instance, religion has been used to discriminate against a non-Muslim mayoral candidate from the Gerindra Party. In Jakarta, expansive banners of Habib Rizieq Syihab, the exiled Islamic Defender Front leader, have become ubiquitous. The examples serve as a warning to people to always put religion in the first place, above everything else, particularly in the elections.

In previous elections, politicisation of religion emerged in various forms – and were quite expertly effected, depending on the individual characteristics of the candidates.

Indonesian legislation has sought to rein in the politicisation of religion. In Article 69(b) of Law No. 10/2016, it is forbidden to “insult someone”; it is also forbidden to insult the person based on his or her religion, ethnicity, race or class of electoral candidature. Article 69(c) also forbids “campaigning in the form of inciting, slandering, playing against political parties, individuals, and/or communities”. Article 187(2) stipulates punishment for those who breach the above articles, namely a prison term, ranging from a minimum of three months to a maximum of 18 months.

Despite the deterrent effect of such regulations, it bears repeating that the politicisation of religion has become a common feature in Indonesian elections. Ahead of the 2020 regional elections, the Elections Supervisory Agency (Bawaslu) has even identified four potential types of politicisation of religion that could be used during the campaign. They are: political speech which involves identity politics and the issue of religion, ethnicity, race and class; provocative sermons at places of worship or religious events; banners from regional head candidates containing verbal primordial messages, and the dissemination of hate speech by anonymous accounts on social media.

In previous elections, politicisation of religion emerged in various forms – and were quite expertly effected, depending on the individual characteristics of the candidates. In polls where all the candidates were Muslims, some parties would try to highlight the most “authentic” and “pious” Muslim among them. They would also seek to favour candidates supported by ulama or having “blue blood”, such as a son or daughter of a kyai (ulama) or an aristocrat. In cases where the candidates have different religions, the case of Ahok – where people were asked not to vote for someone who has a different religious affiliation – could easily be repeated. Where the candidates were of different genders, people were asked, using religious justification, to prefer male rather than female candidates. If the candidates hailed from different mass Islamic organisations, such as the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, old rivalries over orthodoxy and heterodoxy would be dug up again and manipulated. At times, like in Aceh, the candidates would be scrutinised for their capability and fluency in reading the Quran. Pacts with religious groups that demand the implementation of shariah or the banning of the Ahmadiyya and Shi’a was also a common feature during previous elections.

The politicisation of religion will possibly re-emerge in the 2020 regional elections for at least three reasons. First, religion still has an important position and role in Indonesian society. This can be seen not only from the daily activities of its people, but also from the normative basis of the country, such as the Constitution, Pancasila, the ideology of the state and some other regulations. The existence of the Ministry of Religious Affairs further strengthens the role of religion. Second, religion is a source of collective identity in many issues, including politics, economics and social activities. Third, the existence of religious mass organisations with their diverse theological orientations serve as pillars of Indonesia and Indonesian democracy. Given the near-inextricable bond between religion and Indonesian society, any attempts to deter the politicisation of religion, while laudable, might well turn out to be a tall order.

Ahmad Najib Burhani is Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Research Professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/172

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