“The Third Debate for Indonesia’s Presidential Election 2019: Appealing to the Muslim Voters?” by Budi Irawanto

2019/30, 20 March 2019

Taking on issues of education, health, workforce, and social and cultural affairs, the third round of the presidential debates on 17 March 2019 featured the two vice-presidential candidates, Ma’ruf Amin and Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno. Dubbed the “millennial politician”, Sandiaga has a strong presence on social media while Ma’ruf  does not even have a verified Twitter account. Sandiaga has been conducting dialogue sessions in more than 1,500 places across Indonesia, whereas Ma’ruf has been involved in various religious events as part of his campaign trail, mostly in Java.  The absence of heated debate may be due to Sandiaga’s promise not to attack Ma’ruf as a respected ulama (Muslim cleric) and Ma’ruf’s lackluster showing in the first presidential debate in January.

Both Ma’ruf and Sandiaga used the televised debate as a platform to polish their image in the eyes of Muslim voters. To show his credentials as an ulama (plural for religious scholar) Ma’ruf quoted from the Qur’an and Hadiths (Prophet Muhammad’s sayings) three times while promoting his camp’s vision of “Advancing Indonesia” (Indonesia Maju) and prioritizing human resource development. While proposing three new cards for the low-income families to access basic necessities, university education and jobs, Ma’ruf emphasized the revitalization of vocational education during Jokowi’s term. More importantly, rather than simply equipping students with knowledge and skills, his education programme would produce students with akhlaqul karimah (noble character). In his closing statement, Ma’ruf persuaded the public to fight against hoaxes that have discredited Jokowi-Ma’ruf as “anti-Islam”, such as the elimination of religion as a subject in school, the banning of adzan (call to prayer) and the legalization of zina  (fornication) if they win the election.
Meanwhile, Sandiaga maintained his image as a young successful Muslim entrepreneur. He proposed the elimination of national examinations to reduce students’ stress and linking education to industries.  In order to attract Muslim voters, Sandiaga promised that a Prabowo-Sandi government will make Ramadhan (fasting month) a school holiday, following the late former president Abdurrahman Wahid’s policy. In his closing statement, Sandiaga hoped that Indonesia will be “the blessed country”  (baldatun thayyibatun wa rabbun ghafur), drawing from a famous verse from Qur’an surah Saba’ (34/15). Social media users praised Sandiaga’s polite manner (santun) during the debate, but they were disappointed as Sandiaga missed some opportunities to elaborate on his criticisms against Jokowi’s policies, such as the deficit caused by the national health insurance, the low salary of part-time teachers and the anxieties of local jobseekers. In contrast, Ma’ruf’s performance and his grasp of non-religious issues surprised social media commentators, who initially doubted his mastery of national strategic issues.

Clearly, both Ma’ruf and Sandiaga were intending to woo the Muslim majority voters. Perhaps this is inseparable from Ma’ruf’s identity as an ulama running for the election. The next round of televised debate on 30 March 2019 will feature the presidential candidates as they address the highly political issues of ideology, governance, security and international relations.
Dr Budi Irawanto is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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