ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronCrossEye IconIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinShapeCreated with Sketch.Icon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailMenu BurgerIcon Opinion QuotePositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon SearchSite TitleTitle ChevronIcon Twitter
Opinion

Economic nationalism eclipses Islam as key Indonesian election issue

Surprise running mate choices change presidential campaign outlook

Indonesia's presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, left, will likely focus on foreign business as an election issue as he runs against President Joko Widodo (Source photos by AP)

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has given food for thought for those observers focused on the risk that the Muslim-majority country hitherto proud of its largely secular democracy is becoming more Islamist.

They point to the fact that in choosing a running mate in August for next April's presidential election, Widodo made the surprise selection of the 75-year-old conservative Muslim cleric, Ma'ruf Amin, as his vice presidential candidate.

But it could be that the more significant choice was made by Widodo's opponent and long-term rival Prabowo Subianto, who unexpectedly picked the deputy governor of Jakarta, wealthy businessman Sandiaga Uno, who belongs to his own party.

Subianto, an outspoken economic nationalist, has signaled via his deputy, Fadli Zon, that religion as an issue is finished and that his campaign will focus instead on the economy. He has previously warned that Indonesia could become "a nation of errand boys, slaves, a weak nation and a nation that can be bought and a nation that can be bribed." To prevent this, he is likely to attack foreign, including Chinese, investment. In a development that should concern investors, foreign business -- not Islam -- could become the main election issue.

Not that religion is unimportant, as Widodo's choice shows. Ma'ruf Amin, in his role as chair of the Indonesian Ulama Council, has a record of adopting illiberal stances on religion, including decreeing that former Jakarta Gov. Basuki Purnama (Ahok) had committed blasphemy. This resulted in Purnama's electoral defeat in 2017 and a two-year jail sentence.

Widodo was clearly alarmed by the opposition that Purnama, a former ally of his, had aroused in the Muslim community two years ago, set out to develop a close relationship with Amin and has often been seen hand-in-hand with the elderly cleric. Widodo has apparently not been discomforted by Amin's illiberal record on issues such as gay rights and the persecution of the Ahmadiyah Muslim sect. He himself has failed to become the champion of pluralism and religious tolerance that many of his more idealistic supporters first detected in him.

It has long been clear that Widodo would need a running mate with a strongly Islamic identity to help compensate for his own perceived vulnerability as a "secular nationalist." Though Amin is not the first Muslim cleric (ulama) to contest the vice presidency, he is the oldest Indonesian to do so.

The former lawmaker's age probably did not put Widodo off, as the president has a curious fondness for appointing men up to 15 to 20 years his senior. Two of his coordinating ministers, for example, are now in their seventies.

But Amin's age combined with his apparent lack of familiarity with policy issues in such fields as the economy, foreign affairs, defense and the judicial system suggests he will have little contribution to make to governance if he is elected. Widodo may even be obliged to keep him out of the limelight during the election campaign.

While having a cleric of an illiberal bent in the vice presidential post will be something of a victory for the Islamist forces that rallied massively against Purnama and made Widodo panic, those forces will not spare the president even with Amin at his side. Dirty tricks such as smear campaigns can be used against presidential candidates without reference to their running mates.

Economic nationalism has been a constant in Indonesia's post-independence history. It was Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, who pioneered the demonization of foreigners' designs on the country's wealth. Indonesia's success in achieving growth of 5% or more over the past decade has not lessened the attraction of combating the foreign acquisition of Indonesian resources. The signing or renegotiation of any major contract with a foreign mining company can generate long-running controversy, the experience of the Papua-based giant Freeport being the most notable example.

Economic nationalism has not only involved Indonesia's mining resources. One recent issue used against Widodo has been the vastly exaggerated presence of Chinese workers, legal and illegal, in Indonesia. Moreover, throughout Widodo's presidency, his maritime affairs and fisheries minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, has acquired great popularity by blowing up foreign boats caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters, some of them Chinese. Another element of this enduring outlook is Indonesia's long-standing but so far unsuccessful quest for food self-sufficiency.

Aside from Subianto himself, two of Indonesia's main critics of foreign "domination" of the economy have been the former leader of the Muslim party, PAN, Amien Rais, and former armed forces commander Gatot Nurmantyo. Both are anti-Chinese. Their antagonism toward the Chinese often finds expression as crude, undisguised racism. As for Widodo, he is vulnerable to the charge of intensifying Indonesia's dependence on China because of large-scale Chinese participation in his infrastructure projects, the hallmark of his presidency.

Sandiaga Uno, a Sumatran who, at 49, is 26 years younger than his opposite number, Amin, is well educated, having two U.S. university degrees. Articulate and prosperous, he brings to the Subianto ticket an image of youthful vigor, business savvy and modernity.

Uno has already benefited from one scurrilous electoral campaign, namely that directed against Purnama in the Jakarta governorship race two years ago. Uno was the running mate for Anies Baswedan, who easily defeated Purnama. He is well equipped to join in making the economy the centerpiece of Subianto's campaign. His Achilles' heel is that he was helped in his youth by the rich Chinese Soeryadjaya family, but this will not deter him from criticizing China and the Chinese if that benefits the Subianto campaign.

Widodo now has the support of six or seven parties, including the Muslim parties PKB and PPP. Subianto, who leads the Gerindra party, is also backed by the Democrat Party of former President Yudhoyono, and the two Muslim parties, PAN and PKS. So, eight months before the presidential election, Subianto looks very much like the underdog. He is also usually outperformed by Widodo in opinion polls. As this will probably be his last try at the presidency, however, Subianto, now 66, will campaign desperately and aggressively. Uno's political future also hangs on Subianto's fate. If Subianto wins, he can aspire to replace him as president. If he loses, Uno's political career will be over. Despite his international background, therefore, he too will, out of expediency, play the economic nationalist.

A bitter campaign fought around the issue of foreign, particularly Chinese, control of Indonesia's economy could have spillover effects in other Southeast Asian countries with large Chinese populations. It could also have immediate, detrimental, effects on Indonesia's economic performance in 2018-2019.

Ken Ward is a former Australian diplomat and intelligence analyst, and is the author of "Condemned to Crisis?," an assessment of Australia-Indonesia relations.

You have {{numberReadArticles}} FREE ARTICLE{{numberReadArticles-plural}} left this month

Subscribe to get unlimited access to all articles.

Get unlimited access
NAR site on phone, device, tablet

{{sentenceStarter}} {{numberReadArticles}} free article{{numberReadArticles-plural}} this month

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia; the most dynamic market in the world.

Benefit from in-depth journalism from trusted experts within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends September 30th

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to the Nikkei Asian Review has expired

You need a subscription to:

See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media