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"Indonesia’s Presidential Nominees: a Quick Take" by Eve Warburton

2018/82, 10 August 2018

After weeks of intrigue and speculation, Indonesia’s presidential nominations are finally known. As expected, Jokowi will face his old adversary Prabowo Subianto, who resisted pressure from his coalition parties to select Deputy Governor of Jakarta Sandiaga Uno as his running mate. Sandi is a prominent businessman and a senior member of Prabowo’s Gerindra party.

Sandi’s nomination was a surprise. In recent weeks, the media painted Prabowo’s only choice as between Agus Yudhoyono, son of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), or the nominees being pushed by PKS (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera) and Islamist leaders. Prabowo wanted to maintain the alliance with PKS, but he also needed the material resources that Yudhoyono was offering – which of course were contingent solely upon his son being the VP. But instead, Prabowo chose one of his own, while still managing to keep the Islamist contingent on side (media reported Sandi paid the Islamic parties a significant fee). It seems they preferred Sandi (and his money) over SBY’s brazen attempt to build a political dynasty.

President Jokowi, meanwhile, will run for re-election with Ma’ruf Amin, an Islamic cleric whose name had been in the mix for several weeks prior to the nomination. As Rais Am (spiritual leader) of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and chair of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), Ma’ruf is an influential Muslim conservative. Ma’ruf’s right-wing credentials are well known: as MUI chair during the Yudhoyono presidency, he was responsible for some of the MUI’s most illiberal and right-wing fatwa, and in 2016 he supported demands to imprison the former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, for blasphemy. His appointment should provide Jokowi with support from important factions within NU and PKB (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa), and help undercut attempts by the opposition to paint him as un-Islamic and an enemy of the ummah.   

But Ma’ruf was not Jokowi’s first choice. Just hours before Ma’ruf’s nomination was announced, Jokowi and his coalition had made preparations to appoint Mahfud MD, a former PKB politician and respected legal scholar.  For Jokowi, Mahfud was the preferred running mate because he, like Ma’ruf, enjoyed support from key segments (though not all) of the NU community, and surveys showed that the public liked him and viewed him as a man of integrity. Mahfud is also a more moderate figure, and his appointment would have complimented the president’s own ideological predisposition, and those of his constituents.

But as Jokowi prepared to announce Mahfud as his VP candidate, those factions of NU and PKB that were aligned with Ma’ruf erupted in fierce protest, threatening to withdraw their support from the coalition. Jokowi buckled. Thomas Power, an analyst from the Australian National University, stated: “that Jokowi was so easily spooked by PKB’s possible withdrawal, and (presumably) by the ramifications this may have for his standing with traditionalist Muslim voters, shows his deep insecurity around issues of Islamic identity has not abated.”

So Ma’ruf’s appointment is not just a reflection of Jokowi’s inability to facedown party elites. Since the Islamist mobilisations, Jokowi has tried to cultivate and curry favour with conservative leaders and their base. Rather than double-down and defend a more secular and pluralist politics, Jokowi has appeased his right-wing detractors and sought allies from within their ranks. Much like the approach of Ridwan Kamil in West Java, Jokowi has chosen to signal support for conservative Islamic agendas rather than chance an emotional and religiously-charged opposition campaign. The result is that 2019 probably won’t be as polarising as 2014,  but that’s not necessarily a good thing for Indonesian politics or its democracy.

Dr Eve Warburton is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme at 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.