“The Controversy Over Religion-Based Regulations in the 2019 Elections” by Ahmad Najib Burhani

2018/100, 22 November 2018

On 11 November 2018, Grace Natalie, a non-Muslim Chinese who is also the Chairperson of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), declared that her party would never support shari’a-based bylaws and gospel-based bylaws [1]. The statement, made in Serpong, Banten, during the party’s fourth anniversary, has reignited the debate surrounding religion-based regulations.

The remark was made in response to a plan of the District Manokwari, West Papua, to implement a gospel-based bylaw (Manokwari Daerah Injil) in October 2018. The plan to make Manokwari the first “gospel city” in Indonesia by proposing that bylaw was proposed by some members of the Regional House of Representatives of West Papua, such as Dedi Subrata May. This is in line with the shari’a-based bylaws model that has been issued and implemented by more than 400 provinces, regencies, and municipalities in Indonesia. One of the reasons for her opposition to religion-based regulations is “to prevent the emergence of injustice, discrimination, and all intolerant acts in this country”.

Unsurprisingly, this statement did not receive any support or endorsement from any parties (both religious and secular) or politicians. Ma’ruf Amin, the running mate of Joko Widodo in the 2019 Presidential Election and one of the staunchest proponents of the implementation of shari’a in Indonesia, clearly opposed it. Instead, he would endorse any religion-based regulations proposed and approved by people in the various provinces, districts or municipalities. In the same vein, Eva Kusuma Sundari, a member of parliament from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), tried to neutralise the controversy by classifying religion-based regulations into two categories, one that is supportive of democracy and universal values, and one that is discriminative or exclusive.

Since the PSI is one of the Jokowi-Ma’ruf supporters in the Presidential Election, Natalie’s statement can serve as additional ammunition for Jokowi’s opponents to attack him as “anti-Islam”. Therefore, Ma’ruf Amin and several Jokowi allies quickly distanced and disassociated themselves from Natalie’s statement. Her statement also seems to contradict Jokowi’s strategy to shield himself from the use of identity politics during the campaign.

Most politicians in Indonesia, using the statement of Martin van Bruinessen, have the “fear of being perceived as anti-Islam or not Islamic enough”. Therefore, they preferred to endorse religion-based regulations or just kept silent. Even the PDIP, the most secular party in Indonesia, was supportive of the implementation of shari’a-based bylaws in several districts. In van Bruinessen’s analysis, it is the lack of courage to deal with the accusation as “anti-Islam” that has become “the most important factor that has enabled the intolerant minority to become hegemonic”. In this context, the PSI and Grace Natalie posit themselves on the front line of the struggle to beat that fear.

Natalie’s statement may result in two consequences for the PSI. It can generate support and sympathy from various minority groups whose voices were currently under-represented. Although their numbers are small, this group has finally found a party that channels their aspirations and concerns, which may help the PSI pass the four percent electoral threshold.

The second possible consequence is that this statement could lead the PSI to fade from the political scene and not pass the electoral threshold. With growing conservatism and the support of religion-based regulations, Natalie’s statement can be perceived as a kind of “political suicide”. Indeed, the cost of advocating certain principles in the current political climate can be very high.

[1] A bylaw, in Indonesian context, commonly refers to Perda (Peraturan Daerah), regulations which are issued by a certain province, district, or municipality. Bylaws are legally binding rules that outline how the local government will operate. The scope of bylaw is limited to that local government area.

Dr Ahmad Najib Burhani is Visiting Fellow with 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.