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"Ma’ruf Amin: A Shield from Identity Politics, but not a Vote-getter?" by Ahmad Najib Burhani

2018/108, 21 December 2018

Indonesia will be holding its presidential election on 17 April 2019, less than four months from now. One of the topics widely discussed recently by the public is Ma’ruf Amin’s inability to increase Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s re-election chances. Recent surveys by Lembaga Survey Indonesia (LSI) show that Joko Widodo’s electability, tends to be stagnant at around 53 percent, whereas Prabowo’s is around 31 percent. Ma’ruf Amin is often negatively compared with his opponent Sandiaga Uno, the running mate of Prabowo, who has become a magnet for female and millennial voters.

The recent edition of Tempo magazine (15 December 2018), for instance, reported that Ma’ruf Amin failed to boost Jokowi’s percentage in Banten, the province where he was born and where he runs a pesantren (Islamic boarding school). The cover of the Tempo issue even illustrated how Ma’ruf Amin has become a burden for Joko Widodo to shoulder.

Furthermore, although Ma’ruf Amin was rois ‘am (supreme leader) of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the Prabowo-Sandi pair has a higher electability than Jokowi-Maaruf in Madura, East Java, one of NU’s stronghold. It is also reported that Ma’ruf Amin’s plan to visit a pesantren in Garut, West Java last November was rejected by the pesantren’s management.

The appointment of Ma’ruf Amin as Jokowi’s running mate in the 2019 presidential election must have been considered carefully by Joko Widodo and the coalition of the parties that support him. He was chosen mainly as a “shield” from the attacks using politics of identity, particularly religion. It is this reason that made Jokowi complied with the demand of the coalition of political parties to pick Ma’ruf Amin, instead of other candidates, as his running mate.

Some analysts said that the decision to go with Ma’ruf is a “master stroke” to win the upcoming election, which is expected to be fuelled by sectarianism. It was believed to be a move to appeal to his opponents who, based on the Ijtima Ulama, the congregation of Islamic scholars, organized in Jakarta in July 2018, recommended Prabowo to pick an ulama as his running mate. Instead, it was Jokowi who has appointed an ulama as his running mate.

Based on several surveys, Jokowi’s electability before the announcement of presidential and vice-presidential candidates was around 70 percent. Whoever chosen as his running mate will have no significant impact on his electability. Learning from the case of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in the Jakarta election, however, the only factor that could halt Jokowi’s re-election bid is religion.

Expecting Ma’ruf to play a role as a “vote-getter” is, therefore, against the initial decision to choose him as the running mate of Jokowi. It seems difficult to win the hearts and minds of young voters with politik sarung dan songkok (politics of sarong and cap), the attire commonly used by Ma’ruf Amin during the most of his campaigning. A person like Sandiaga Uno, good-looking, rich and young, is obviously more attractive to the millennial voters than the 75-year old Ma’ruf Amin.

The litmus test for the success of the appointment of Ma’ruf Amin is whether he is capable of shielding Jokowi from any attacks on utilizing religion. Reuni 212 or the third annual Action to Defend Islam (Aksi Bela Islam) rally on 2 December 2018 was an event that can be used as a test of the capability of Ma’ruf Amin to domesticate conservative Muslims. The issue of religion-based bylaws, triggered by the statement of Grace Natalie of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), is another test.

In the former, although Ma’ruf Amin was one of the main actors of Aksi Bela Islam, he seemed to have failed to prevent conservative Muslims from utilizing it again for political purpose, particularly to support Prabowo and undermine Jokowi. In the latter, it is the presence of Ma’ruf Amin in Jokowi’s camp that became a factor that prevent this issue from boiling up politically which could jeopardize Jokowi’s chance to be re-elected.

In short, at least for now, the appointment of Ma’ruf Amin as a shield from identity politics has been a mixed success. Jokowi’s camp, however, perhaps needs to start lowering their expectation for Ma’ruf Amin as a vote-getter.

Dr Ahmad Najib Burhani 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.