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A matter of identity
Image, populism and polarisation were at the forefront in the complex elections held in Indonesia last month

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Reuters
Reuters
Supporters of Indonesia's presidential candidate Joko Widodo at a campaign rally in Solo

Indonesia’s 2019 legislative and presidential elections on 17 April, which for the first time were held simultaneously, have been labelled as the world’s most complex poll. The one-day election – with 193 million eligible voters, 150 million actual voters and more than 800,000 polling stations across 6,000 inhabited islands – has been lauded around the world for its efficiency.

Turnout was relatively high at around 82 per cent. According to early results, the ruling Democratic Party of Struggle, headed by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and to which president Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, belongs, leads with 20 per cent of the vote in the legislative election. Prabowo Subianto’s opposition party, Gerindra, got only 12 per cent, while Nasdem, another ruling party that identifies itself in the progressive camp, won about 10 per cent.

According to quick counts of more than 90 per cent of the votes, the incumbent Jokowi won the presidential election by a comfortable margin of 10 per cent – and therefore is likely to remain for another five years in office, his second and final term. As he did in 2014, however, Prabowo – an ex-general accused of serious human rights violations and the former son-in-law of dictator/president Suharto – has challenged the incumbent’s victory and declared himself the winner. The official results will be announced by the Election Commission on 22 May at the latest.

Rebuilding a reputation

At Jokowi’s side is a new vice-president with wide-ranging powers: the 76-year-old conservative Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin, previous head of the Muslim mass movement Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which has up to 40 million members. Jokowi has been systematically attacked by opponents in the past for not being a devout Muslim; Amin’s nomination was an attempt to take the wind out of critics’ sails during an election campaign that has been widely characterised as being driven by identity politics, religious polarisation, economic populism and fake news.

After the fall of Ahok, as well as building his reputation as a strongman, Jokowi has brought into his camp both military and conservative religious forces to gain electoral benefits – a tactically clever but morally questionable move.

This nomination was a tactical decision that many observers also trace back to the fall of his protégé Ahok, the ethnic Chinese and Christian former governor of Jakarta. Ahok caused public outcry among the conservative Muslim community when he cited the Koran in his Jakarta election campaign speech. Islamic and Islamist groups, and his election rivals, hinted that he was guilty of blasphemy, and Amin issued a fatwa against him. Several mass demonstrations were staged in Jakarta and across the country. As tensions mounted, Ahok was indicted and later sentenced to two years in prison in May 2017. With the entire political architecture shifted by the saga, the mild-mannered Jokowi – who was shocked by the mobilisation against Ahok and, indirectly, himself – began his political and personal re-alignment.

After the fall of Ahok, as well as building his reputation as a strongman, Jokowi has brought into his camp both military and conservative religious forces to gain electoral benefits – a tactically clever but morally questionable move. At the same time, he put more effort into nurturing his identity as a devout Muslim by aligning himself more obviously with Muslim organisations and individuals.

And indeed, thanks to the alliance with NU, he has significantly improved on his 2014 performance at the ballot box in the two NU strongholds of Central and East Java, the provinces with the country’s second and third largest populations. In both key provinces, local NU leaders asked their followers to vote for the Jokowi-Amin camp.

Man of the people

Jokowi’s strategy of highlighting his Muslim credentials and identity was underpinned not least when he made a brief pilgrimage to Mecca with his wife after the election campaign, just before the elections in the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.

The Prabowo camp, for its part, aligned not only with Islamist parties in the Indonesian parliament like PKS but also with radical Islamist movements like the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). With the FPI leader Habieb Rizieq, who Prabowo visited in his exile in Saudi Arabia, the two proclaimed they were forming an ummah alliance, or a community within Islam.

One of the greatest challenges facing Indonesian society is without a doubt finding a solution to structural social inequality.

As well as religious smear campaigns, Prabowo attempted doomsday populism, warning that Indonesia would be extinct by 2030 if he weren’t elected. Presenting himself as an advocate of the common people, he claimed that Indonesia’s resources were being plundered by the elites and channelled abroad. This accusation was countered by Jokowi during the second presidential debate, when he pointed out that Prabowo owns 220,000 hectares of land in East Kalimantan province and 120,000 in Aceh, worth several hundred million dollars.

In the end, Prabowo’s strategy of denying the incumbent his Muslim piety, identity and credentials while presenting himself as a devout Muslim and man of the people failed.

A digital force for the region

One of the greatest challenges facing Indonesian society is without a doubt finding a solution to structural social inequality. During the election, economic and social policies played a comparatively significant role, but the debate was dominated by continuous announcements of new labels to package those policies culturally. The Jokowi camp came out with the following: ekonomi berkeadilan (justice economy), ekonomi Pancasila (the Indonesian state ideology, which combines religious and social inclusivity), ekonomi Gotong Royong (an Indonesian concept of mutual support) and ekonomi umat (an Islamic term for community). This focus on framing over content reflected the political balancing act required to bring together a genuinely socialist state ideology in the face of anti-left reflexes, conservative Islam and the rise of identity politics, as well as the endeavour to reduce inequality.

While Jokowi has until now had a successful businessman as his deputy, his new vice-president designate is not known for his expertise, or even interest, in economics. However, just two weeks after the election, the country’s planning ministry announced a five-year masterplan for the Sharia economy. The re-elected president has also said he will focus his second term on improving human resources, which means better education and empowerment for the Indonesian workforce, and has already declared that he wants to turn Indonesia into a regional hub for the digital economy by 2025.

A former furniture salesman and city mayor, Jokowi dedicated his first presidential term primarily to the improvement of the national infrastructure, and accordingly commissioned the building of airports, ports, railway lines, subways, roads and bridges. At the same time, he continued to push ahead with land redistribution and the expansion of the universal social security system, which was introduced only in 2014, to cover the whole population of Indonesia in the coming years. The hope that he would review historic human right offences, however, has not yet been fulfilled.

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