ArrowArtboardCreated with Sketch.Title ChevronTitle ChevronEye IconIcon FacebookIcon LinkedinIcon Mail ContactPath LayerIcon MailMenu BurgerPositive ArrowIcon PrintIcon SearchSite TitleTitle ChevronIcon Twitter
Politics

Indonesia's Islamists create a re-election minefield for Widodo

President responds to smears by emphasizing support for Rohingya, Palestine

Muslims gather at Jakarta's National Monument on Dec. 2 to mark the anniversary of protests that brought down the capital's ethnic-Chinese Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.   © Reuters

JAKARTA Ridwan Kamil, the popular mayor of Bandung in Indonesia's West Java Province, was once touted by Muslim conservatives to be destined for national leadership. But this changed in March when Kamil, previously backed by the opposition, agreed to support President Joko Widodo ahead of the 2019 general election.

Kamil, who will run for West Java governor in 2018, suddenly found himself on the receiving end of a propaganda campaign portraying him as a "lesser Muslim." He has been blasted for visiting a church during the Christmas season and accused of being a Shiite -- a shunned minority in the Sunni-majority country -- among other smears.

This same dynamic could affect Widodo himself, as he is likely to seek re-election.

The president, who is also a Muslim, has been accused of being a secret Christian. He has also been linked with the disbanded Indonesian Communist Party, and has been accused of rolling out a red carpet for China to take over the country.

The persistence of such rumors may make Widodo's commanding lead in the polls for 2019 less secure than it looks. Even though his infrastructure programs and reforms have won over the public after a rocky first year, if he seeks re-election, the smear campaign could go into overdrive again.

Islamists' growing influence over Indonesian politics became clear in the Jakarta gubernatorial election in April. The capital's once-popular governor, ethnic-Chinese Christian Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, was accused of blasphemy, lost the race and was sentenced to two years in prison.

FAITH-BASED STRATEGY The accusation that Purnama, a Widodo ally, insulted the Quran had sparked two huge rallies by conservative Muslims in late 2016. Burhanuddin Muhtadi, executive director of pollster Indikator Politik Indonesia, called the rally leaders "religio-political entrepreneurs" with links to political interests, despite their claims that they are purely looking out for Islam.

One way or another, the movement clearly helped former Education Minister Anies Baswedan unseat Purnama in the gubernatorial election. Backed by Prabowo Subianto -- Widodo's main rival on the national stage -- Baswedan's popularity surged after the rallies as he courted some of the hard-line Muslim groups that had organized them.

Even with Purnama in jail, the movement lives on, stoking concern about sectarian tensions in the world's most populous Muslim country.

Islamists have been using the tag "Alumni 212" -- a reference to the date of one of the big anti-Purnama protests -- to mobilize crowds for what they call Islamic causes. This includes the Alumni 212 Reunion at the National Monument in Jakarta on Dec. 2, during which speakers claimed that Widodo has criminalized ulemas -- councils of Muslim scholars -- while selling Indonesia to foreigners.

Muhtadi said the Islamists' mobilization could have serious implications for Widodo's chances for a second term.

"The campaign against Jokowi is centered around him being a lesser Muslim," Muhtadi said, using the president's nickname. "That is along the same line" as the campaign against Purnama.

To counter allegations that he is somehow anti-Islam, Widodo has distanced himself from Purnama. The president has also forged strong ties with Indonesia's two largest Muslim organizations, the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, which are generally seen as moderate.

Internationally, the president has made a point of raising Indonesia's profile in the Muslim world. He has been outspoken on the plight of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims and, more recently, on the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

Sponsored Content

About Sponsored Content This content was commissioned by Nikkei's Global Business Bureau.

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this monthThis is your last free article this month

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

Stay ahead with our exclusives on Asia

Get trusted insights from experts within Asia itself.

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Get Unlimited access

You have {{numberArticlesLeft}} free article{{numberArticlesLeft-plural}} left this month

This is your last free article this month

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

Get trusted insights from experts
within Asia itself.

Try 3 months for $9

Offer ends May 26th

Your trial period has expired

You need a subscription to...

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers and subscribe

Your full access to the Nikkei Asian Review has expired

You need a subscription to:

  • Read all stories with unlimited access
  • Use our mobile and tablet apps
See all offers
NAR on print phone, device, and tablet media