Impact of 2018 identity politics

Indonesian politics has been marred by heightening identity-based politics over the last two or three years. Despite its peak passing after the Jakarta election in 2017, the remnants of those 2016 massive rallies were still powerful enough to mold our politics in 2018.

There are at least three important conclusions to be drawn with regard to our growing conservatism in politics.

First, we were surprised by the immense turnout during the reunion of the “212” movement last month. Compared to the Dec. 2, 2016 rally against then-Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy, the 2018 event seemed more profound in terms of the crowd’s number and its messages.

It is clear that the movement has successfully solidified its base and will be a firm voting bloc for Prabowo Subianto in the April presidential election.

Our surprise also comes down to how feeble the selection of Ma’ruf Amin as the vice presidential candidate for incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was to at least mollify the situation. As we recall, the main reason why Jokowi picked Ma’ruf was to sway Muslim voters and, at the same time, cracking down on the sturdiness of the movement.

However, it becomes obvious now that Ma’ruf does not necessarily have a strong hold within the 212 movement folks — despite being leader of the powerful Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI).

Or if he does, for whatever reason Ma’ruf seems not bold enough to oppose the movement. This is quite a liability for Jokowi’s camp as election time is approaching.

This brings us to my second point about the state of Islam in Indonesia.

The inefficacy of Ma’ruf in containing the rising clout of Islamism validates the ever-increasing schism within the Islamic groups. Being the MUI leader does not automatically make him the spokesperson of all Muslims.

This is apparently true for the leaders of two big Muslim organizations, namely Muhammadiyah and Nahdatul Ulama (NU).

Yes, they are both the oldest and largest groups.

But, instead of listening to their own clerics, many Muhammadiyah and NU members these days are more fascinated in sermons given by the newly sprung up preachers who do not associate themselves with the two mainstream groups.

A survey by Denny JA’s LSI last October confirms this view. When respondents were asked, “who is the most listened to cleric to you?” the top five answers in order were Abdul Somad, Arifin Ilham, Yusuf Mansyur, Abdullah Gymnastiar and Rizieq Shihab.

Whereas three clerics from NU such as Salahudin Wahid, Said Aqil Sirodj, Mustofa Bisri trail far behind. And combined with two senior NU clerics of Maimoen Zubair and the late Slamet Effendy Yusuf, the religious calls of these five figures were listened to by only 15 percent of respondents.

Therefore, we are perhaps in the state where the established Muslim organizations are losing ground to individual preachers.

These top individuals are more attractive probably because their sermons touch upon the more relevant aspects of day-to-day life of Indonesian Muslims.

For example, they talked a lot about household problems, marriage and youth empowerment.

The traditional groups should find a way to deal with this or otherwise they could be more and more irrelevant in the near future.

The last point is about the simultaneous regional elections held in mid-2018. At first we were worried about whether or not the same strategy of smear campaigns of the Jakarta’s gubernatorial election of 2017 would be replicated. This was a legitimate concern given the sizable voters involved (around 150 million) who would vote for 171 regional leaders.

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ research of local elections reveals that Jakarta’s model of sectarianism-based politics emanated very limitedly at local level.

Despite identity remaining a salient factor in determining the elections’ outcomes, we learned that the reason for using it was very much context specific.

For example, issues that matter most for voters revolved around whether or not the candidates were natives from respected regions, who their parents were, and which clans or tribes the candidates were from.

These are essentially enduring issues popping up in every election cycle and were not necessarily affected by what happened in Jakarta.

Sectarian issues were played out but have never been deliberately played at the same level as in 2017. We noted that people at regency level had a strong wish for reformist leaders, however they also weighed this preference with a more primordial concern.

Therefore, identity politics is indeed happening and remains to shape our politics. But its effect is actually quite limited at national level.

What are the consequences of all this as we gear up for the presidential election?

To be sure, the prospect of religious sentiment is still lurking. If there is no case as big as the protests leading to Ahok’s imprisonment and all other things being equal in the lead up to voting day, one might expect campaign season will be relatively peaceful.

But this optimism entails Ma’ruf to be more assertive and engaging, especially in major provinces where the supporters of conservatism vastly breed such as Jakarta, Banten and West Java.

The room for such optimism is also there partly because the incumbent’s challengers actually have weak leverage to speak comfortably on behalf of Muslim voters.

Both Prabowo and his vice-presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno are hardly polarizing figures and basically have no interest in any Islamist ideas. They both have neither formal Islamic education nor affinity with Islamism throughout their careers.

The problem really lies with the core supporters of the two. Should they gain a momentum to reunify, or at least deliberately escalate their effort to play the religious sentiment card, the campaign trail would be frightful.


The writer is a researcher at the Department of Politics and Social Change, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta. 

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