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Indonesian Civil Society Groups Concerned by VP Picks

People wear T-shirts that read "Replace the President in 2019" stand under a large national flag during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia, May 6, 2018.

Indonesian civil society groups are expressing concern President Joko Widodo’s choice of an influential Islamic cleric as his vice-presidential running mate, seen by many observers as a smart political move, could lead to the further erosion of minority rights amid rising religious conservatism in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

Last week, the president, widely known by his nickname Jokowi, confirmed the selection of Ma’ruf Amin, the supreme leader of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the chairman of the conservative quasi-governmental Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), the latter of which is responsible for Halal certification in the archipelago.

Despite some political experience in serving on the Presidential Advisory Council under Jokowi’s predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, during which time he was instrumental in the introduction of controversial so-called ‘religious harmony laws’, the 75-year-old Ma’ruf is a somewhat unconventional choice.

“Maybe there are questions from the people all over Indonesia why Professor Dr. Ma’ruf Amin was chosen. Because he is a wise religious figure,” said the president last week as quoted by Reuters. “I think we complete each other, nationalist and religious.”

The incumbent’s major opponent, meanwhile, will be former military general Prabowo Subianto, who also ran against Jokowi in the 2014 presidential race. He will be joined by wealthy businessman and Jakarta’s current vice governor, Sandiaga Uno. In a bitterly fought 2014 campaign, Prabowo’s side frequently sought to depict Jokowi as inadequately sympathetic to Islamic interests.

While Jokowi’s popularity remains high – a survey from Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting in December 2017 putting his approval rating at 76 percent – his Islamic credentials have remained a point on which he is attacked by opponents.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo delivers a speech at Foreign Ministry office in Jakarta, Indonesia, Feb. 12, 2018.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo delivers a speech at Foreign Ministry office in Jakarta, Indonesia, Feb. 12, 2018.

Evan Laksmana, an analyst at the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, tweeted that Ma’ruf’s selection had solidified “the religious-nationalist axis” within the ruling coalition, which features a wide range of moderate nationalist and Islamic parties. Laksmana said it would successfully boost Jokowi’s religious credentials “to the point of almost taking out religious mobilization away for Prabowo’s camp.”

Ma’ruf last year played a key role in toppling Jokowi’s former ally Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, the ethnically Chinese Christian former governor of Jakarta who became the target of a campaign by hardline groups to oust him from office after he was accused of insulting the Quran. He also served as an “expert witness” for the successful blasphemy prosecution against Ahok, for which the once-widely popular politician is now serving a two-year prison sentence.

According to Professor Edward Aspinall from the Australian National University, “Jokowi saw this massive Islamist mobilization against that Christian Chinese governor as a sign of how his own political career could come to an end, and since that time he’s been trying to shore up his position politically on the Islamic right and in particular by appealing to leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama” and the MUI. Ma’ruf has been a “lynchpin” of this strategy, Aspinall told VOA.

An ally of Jokowi told local media this week that Ahok was “a thousand percent” not angry about the president’s choice of deputy.

But Ma’ruf’s candidacy was deemed “extreme pragmatism” by an editorial in the Jakarta Post, which asked “What if, for short-term political gain, Jokowi sacrificed the long-term prospect of democracy and diversity?”

Human Rights Watch’s Indonesia researcher, Andreas Harsono, said Ma’ruf’s role in “singlehandedly” drafting the religious harmony law in 2006, which “replaced the principle of religious freedom where citizens have equal rights” and made it significantly more difficult for minorities to build places of worship, means that his candidacy does not bode well for the rights of non-Muslim Indonesians, women or the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Indonesia’s news agency Antara in 2016 quoted Ma’ruf as saying “we want a stern prohibition of LGBT activities and other deviant sexual activities and legislation that categorizes them as crime[s].” According to Harsono, “Ma’ruf Amin also issued fatwa[s] discriminating against women ranging from female genital mutilation is a must, to child marriage, to many other issues regarding Muslim women.”

A man walks past an anti-LGBT banner with writings that read "Indonesia is on LGBT emergency" and "LGBT is a contagious disease, save the young generation from LGBT people."
A man walks past an anti-LGBT banner with writings that read "Indonesia is on LGBT emergency" and "LGBT is a contagious disease, save the young generation from LGBT people."

On the opposition side, Prabowo will mobilize a “nationalist, populist authoritarian appeal to strong leadership,” said Aspinall. His running mate Uno, who was also instrumental in the campaign to topple Ahok, was chosen after he pledged IDR500 billion ($342,700) to both the Islamic PAN and PKS parties.

Sandi, as Uno is known, hails from Gorontalo on the island of Sulawesi and will be the only candidate on the presidential ballot who is not from Java. In a diverse country of thousands of islands and hundreds of languages, which has nevertheless been long dominated by the ethnic Javanese majority, this could prove an important factor in attracting the votes of ethnic minorities – particularly those in Sulawesi.

But neither of the coalitions is expected to prioritize minority rights in the election campaign. “Minorities Ahmadiyyah to Christian, from women to LGBT individuals, are increasingly being sandwiched between these two political camps,” added Harsono. “It is not good news at all for their future, but also for the future of Indonesia.”