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For Indonesia's President, a Foreshadowing of Trouble

8 MINS READJun 28, 2017 | 22:37 GMT
Indonesian Muslims offer Eid al-Fitr prayers at a mosque in Banda Aceh. Over the next two years, President Joko
(AHMAD ARISKA/AFP/Getty Images)

Indonesian Muslims offer Eid al-Fitr prayers at a mosque in Banda Aceh. Over the next two years, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo will need political acumen to counter the opposition's appeal to Islamist sentiment and keep his ruling coalition together.

Forecast Highlights
  • The Indonesian opposition will continue to rally Islamist groups against the ruling coalition as local and national elections approach in 2018 and 2019.
  • Despite President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's popularity and parliamentary strength, the opposition's tactics will strain the ruling coalition. 
  • Defending the coalition, in turn, will limit Jokowi's capacity to pursue his ambitious reform agenda.

Indonesia is often presented as a counterpoint to Islam's sway in governance and political ideology across the Middle East and parts of South Asia. The country is home to the world's largest Muslim population — 242 million people — yet its government is based on a set of secular, pluralist principles rooted in the geographic fragmentation that defines its geopolitics. While Muslims make up about 87 percent of the country's population, significant Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities also live in Indonesia, particularly in its urban economic centers. Effectively governing the nation, a collection of 17,000 islands scattered over 1.9 million square kilometers (742,000 square miles), requires a political order that can appeal to each of these groups — or else risk spawning separatist movements.

The past eight months, however, have brought political Islam to the fore in Indonesia. Islamic groups have proved themselves a credible challenge to President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and his ruling coalition, led by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). In the run-up to Jakarta's gubernatorial race, Islamic civil society groups, with support from the opposition, staged massive protests against incumbent candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who as an ethnic Chinese Christian, is a double minority in Indonesia. Purnama lost re-election in late April to a candidate backed by the opposition Gerindra Party. And on May 9, he was sentenced to two years in prison on blasphemy charges that Islamic groups had leveled against him. 

The defeat was a blow for Jokowi, who was widely expected to choose Purnama — his former deputy during the president's days as governor of Jakarta — as his running mate in the next presidential election. That vote, set for 2019, will mark the culmination of a series of local elections throughout 2018. In the meantime, Jokowi faces a daunting challenge ahead as he works to navigate the opposition's new tactics and keep his coalition together while maintaining the leeway to pursue his ambitious reform agenda.  

The Newer Order

Political Islam has long been a feature of the modern Indonesian political scene. During the country's colonial period, Islamic groups formed to oppose Dutch rule in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of these groups went on to form political parties after Indonesia gained its independence in the late 1940s. But the governments of Sukarno, the country's first president, and his successor, Suharto, pushed them out of politics. Political Islam resurged after Suharto's New Order government fell in 1998: One-third of the seats in parliament went to Islamic parties in the first election after the longtime strongman's resignation. (Abdurrahman Wahid, the first president elected in Suharto's wake, likewise represented an Islamic party, though his victory was due more to the country's upheaval than to his religious or political affiliation.) 

Islamic parties continued to figure prominently in subsequent administrations, but they were divided and never attained more than 35 percent of parliamentary seats. In 2006, in fact, their presence in the legislature dipped to just 26 percent. The parties' efforts to field plausible presidential candidates — or perhaps to unify — failed in the 2014 election, and instead Jokowi rose to power as the first post-Suharto leader unaffiliated with the New Order government. Today, four Islamic parties hold 33 percent of the legislature's seats. Three of the groups — the National Awakening Party (PKB), United Development Party (PPP) and National Mandate Party (PAN) — are members of the ruling coalition, while the fourth, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), is allied with the Gerindra Party. 

After the New Order government collapsed in 1998, political Islam resurged in Indonesia, and 42 new Islamic parties emerged. Today, four of these parties hold seats in Indonesia's legislature, the People's Representative Council (DPR).

As the country's Islamic parties have stagnated over the past several years, Muslim identity has taken on a new significance in Indonesian society. A 2013 Pew poll, for example, showed that 72 percent of Indonesians support introducing some form of Sharia law in the country. Some provinces, such as Aceh, have even rolled out measures enforcing dress codes or limiting the sale of alcohol. The Islamic Defenders Group (FPI) — a Sunni Islamist organization founded in the aftermath of the New Order's collapse — apparently capitalized on the Islamization underway in Indonesia to rally opposition against Purnama in Jakarta. The FPI advocates for Sharia law and carries out vigilante sweeps across the country to enforce its brand of morality. Another group involved in the protests, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, is a transnational organization that advocates for the establishment of an Islamic state. Together, they set off a social media firestorm and brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to demonstrate against Jakarta's governor. The opposition candidates in the gubernatorial race openly supported the rallies; when the Gerindra Party won the vote's second round in May, its leader, Prabowo Subianto, congratulated the FPI for saving Indonesian democracy.

Taking the Tactic Nationwide

The tumult of the Jakarta gubernatorial election will probably play out on a national scale over the next two years. Preparations will begin in November for gubernatorial elections slated for the following June in 171 regions. These votes will be a bellwether for the ruling coalition's viability ahead of nationwide legislative polls in April 2019. Then in September of that year, Jokowi will face off against a host of contenders — Prabowo likely chief among them — to seek another term as president. Already, the next presidential election is shaping up to be more chaotic than the last one was in 2014: A group of small parties banded together in May to remove a parliamentary threshold that otherwise would have kept some of them from running candidates.

Critical to the results of the upcoming elections will be Indonesia's three most populous provinces, all located on the core island of Java. Taken together, the constituencies in West Java, East Java and Central Java account for nearly 50 percent of the country's population. The opposition is already gearing up to mount the same kind of protest campaigns in these provinces that helped bring Purnama down in Jakarta. As parties in West Java assemble their tickets for the gubernatorial election, Ridwan Kamil, a potential PDI-P candidate and the current mayor of Bandung, is facing accusations that he approved the construction of more than 300 non-Islamic religious buildings in his city. Kamil, who hails from the secular National Democratic Party, a member of Jokowi's ruling coalition, has released records showing he licensed only five such projects. He also circulated images of himself meeting with a prominent imam. A collection of 13 Islamic groups calling itself the Alliance of People Who Care About West Java, meanwhile, has come forward to denounce the inclusion of female candidates in the race for governor of their province.

Jokowi, too, is susceptible to attacks from hard-line Islamic groups aligned with the opposition, despite his enduring popularity. (A poll conducted in March by Indo Barometer put the president's approval rating at 66 percent.) In the 2014 election, Jokowi's biggest losses occurred in West Sumatra, Gorontalo and West Nusa Tenggara — provinces where the proportion of Muslim residents exceeds the national average of 88 percent. The opposition's draw with Islamist voters could be even stronger in these regions than it was in Jakarta, where Muslims make up 85.4 percent of the population.

And considering that political strategy, rather than ideology, holds the ruling coalition together, it may not withstand the opposition's pressure in the upcoming election seasons. The PPP's and PKB's supporters defied their parties' endorsement and voted against Purnama in the Jakarta gubernatorial race. If the local votes in 2018 reveal similar defections, the two Islamic parties may rethink their affiliation with PDI-P. The ruling coalition's second-largest member, the secular party Golkar, may also reconsider its decision to ally with Jokowi. Golkar, which began as a New Order mass organization, joined the Great Indonesia Coalition in January 2016 after an internal leadership shift. The party reaffirmed its support for Jokowi during a party congress in May, but its allegiances could easily turn again should the Islamic opposition prove strong enough. After all, Golkar's members came out in favor of anti-pornography and dress code legislation in 2008, and 40 percent of its supporters turned on Purnama in the Jakarta polls.

Fighting Back

In the wake of the Jakarta election, Jokowi has started hitting back at the opposition. And though his institutional pull did little to lighten Purnama's sentence for blasphemy, the president has found greater success pulling the other security and legal levers at his disposal. Authorities arrested five of the Jakarta protest movement's leaders in early April for allegedly plotting to take over parliament and overthrow the government. The leader of the FPI, meanwhile, was charged in May with distributing pornography after having reportedly sent salacious text messages to his mistress. Furthermore, Jokowi moved May 8 to ban Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia under a law passed in 2013 that gives the president broad powers to regulate nongovernmental organizations. He could also step up his outreach to moderate clerics and increase Indonesia's activities in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to firm up his support among Muslim voters. 

But no matter what tactics he tries, the president's political opposition will continue to challenge him and his ruling coalition. Although Jokowi's position is still strong three years into his five-year term, he faces an uphill battle on the way to the 2019 election.

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