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Widodo's VP choice signals Indonesia's rising religious intolerance

Muslim cleric Ma'ruf Amin has potential to be future kingmaker

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, and Islamic cleric Ma'ruf Amin, his running mate for the 2019 presidential election   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Amid the Asian financial crisis 20 years ago, Ginandjar Kartasasmita, who was sitting in then-President Suharto's cabinet, not only fixed Indonesia's ailing economy but also helped force Suharto's resignation, ending the nation's 30 years of "development dictatorship."

The once-influential official visited Japan in July and predicted the outcome of Indonesia's April 2019 presidential election, saying "President Joko Widodo will be reelected. He is very strong like [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe."

But then he had some unsettling words: "The question is, who will be the vice president, because the vice president in 2019 will be a good candidate for president in 2024," noting that the Indonesian presidency is limited to two terms.

On Aug. 9, Widodo chose hard-line Muslim cleric Ma'ruf Amin, 75, as his vice-presidential candidate.

Amin, who is 18 years Widodo's senior, chairs the Indonesia Ulema Council, the world's largest Muslim organization. The cleric wields enormous influence over Indonesia's mainly Muslim population of 260 million.

This has some worried. Human Rights Watch, an international nongovernmental organization, said Amin has played a key role in oppressing religious and sexual minorities, warning that human rights in Indonesia may be in jeopardy.

"I am a nationalist. He is a devout religious figure. We complement each other well," Widodo explained about his choice of Amin.

In most countries, nationalists are usually regarded as right-wing. In Indonesia, however, they are seen as middle-of-the-road.

"Indonesia is the only Southeast Asian nation to have fought a war of independence, and its memory still lingers in the form of nationalism," said Ken Miichi, associate professor at Waseda University's Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies in Tokyo.

Conservative Muslims -- from moderates to extremists -- are considered right-wing in Indonesia.

Historically, the country has been ruled by the military or elites. Widodo, a former furniture maker, is its first grass roots leader. His current vice president, Jusuf Kalla, is a wealthy businessman.

Widodo picked the Muslim cleric as his running mate due to a controversy that rocked his ascent to power two years ago.

After stepping down as governor of Jakarta in 2014 to assume the presidency, Widodo handed over the reins to his old ally, Deputy Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese and Christian.

In September 2016, Basuki ignited a furor when, during a gubernatorial campaign speech, he said that Mulsim-hardliners opposing him on religious grounds were misleading other Muslims and their belief in the Quran.

The controversial speech provoked a national outcry among Muslims, 200,000 of whom took to the streets of Jakarta in protest.

Basuki was eventually defeated in the April 2017 gubernatorial election by a candidate backed by Muslim extremists, and was later found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison, a tougher punishment than prosecutors had sought.

The downfall of Basuki dealt the somewhat secular Widodo a serious blow, with opposition parties noting that religion could become a lighting-rod issue in future polls. Prabowo Subianto, who lost to Widodo in the 2014 presidential election, has been expected to use the president's perceived weak faith in Islam as a way to win votes.

Hence, Widodo's choice of the devout and powerful Amin, who the president is banking on to garner more support among Muslims.

Amin will serve as a "very strong shield" against religious attacks from the opposition camp, but the mixing of religion and politics will grow stronger in Indonesia, said Peter Mumford, an analyst with Eurasia Group, a U.S. research company.

Given his age, Amin is unlikely to run in any presidential election after the 2019 race, but his role as future kingmaker is not to be underestimated.

The Basuki scandal reveals the growing religious intolerance in the country. A 2017 survey conducted by Lingkaran Survei Indonesia, a private Indonesia research company, found that 49.1% of the respondents opposed non-Muslim leaders in government, up sharply from 32.4% in a similar 2010 survey.

Muslim extremists began to rise in prominence after Indonesia's democratization in 1998. Under the credo of "unity in diversity," the country does not recognize Islam as its national religion, unlike neighboring Malaysia. During Suharto's reign, Islamic organizations were tightly muzzled.

But as the country embraces freer expression, Islamic organizations have become increasingly active, including those considered militant. The trend has become more visible since the Basuki scandal and emergence of Widodo, who is perceived as being more worldly than many of his predecessors.

"Indonesia's identity politics now stands at a crossroads; between open-minded Islam in accord with modernization and narrow-minded, exclusive Islam," said Takashi Shiraishi, chancellor of the Prefectural University of Kumamoto and an expert on Southeast Asia.

While many Southeast Asian countries are becoming more authoritarian -- notably Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia -- Indonesia has experienced steady democratization. But religious intolerance is beginning to rear its ugly head.

Radical Islam, which formerly remained excluded from politics, has taken advantage of Indonesia's growing freedoms to gradually undermine democracy, putting the country in an unenviable and ironic position.

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