How a 'Secular' President Is Wooing Conservative Muslims

How a 'Secular' President Is Wooing Conservative Muslims

President Joko Widodo takes a selfie at the Indonesian World Record Museum, one of his many campaign trail stops.

SourceMuhammad A.F/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Why you should care

Indonesia’s Joko Widodo is losing secular voters and picking up conservative ones instead, which could influence how he governs if he wins again. 

Five years ago, Joko Widodo’s presidential campaign highlighted his love of hard metal music, wooing young, urban voters with his secularism. Images emerged on the internet of him with a guitar gifted by Metallica’s Robert Trujillo. But now, the president known as ”Jokowi” is seeking reelection, and his team is showcasing his Islamic piety instead. They’re even bringing the media along when he attends Friday prayers. The shift risks costing him the support of secular young voters and minorities who brought him to power in 2014. Yet a week before Indonesia’s presidential elections, the strategy appears to be working — thanks to an unlikely new set of supporters: Conservative Muslims.

Jokowi is leading his conservative opponent, Prabowo Subianto, by 14 points in the latest polls, suggesting he may be headed for a comfortable win, though that margin is down 2 points since February. But masking that gap is the changing nature of Jokowi’s voter base — to more conservative sections of society — and what that could mean for Indonesia’s future.

Faced with rising Islamist extremism, Jokowi has clamped down on radical groups while also, over the past two years, distancing himself from the strident secularism he campaigned on in 2014. He failed to stand up for his former ally, the ethnically Chinese and Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama “Ahok,” when he was accused of blasphemy and subsequently jailed in May 2017. Jokowi hasn’t kept his campaign promises to address human rights concerns in Papua or the still un-investigated 1965-66 coup and mass killings.

He’s certainly doing everything he can, in electoral terms, not to offend Muslim voters.

R. William Liddle, Indonesia expert, Ohio State University

Disenchantment with what some supporters see as a “betrayal” is reflected in the polls. In Jakarta, where Jokowi was once mayor and where he won by 8 percentage points in 2014, he’s now trailing Prabowo by that margin, according to a March 20 poll. On social media, a movement called Golput — short for Golongan Putih, which means to turn in an empty ballot — is gaining steam among young voters who backed Jokowi the last time. The number of undecided voters is increasing as elections approach — up to 11.4 percent in mid-March, compared to 10.5 percent in December — even though these exact same, well-known candidates faced off in 2014.

But there’s also growing evidence that Jokowi is picking up more of the Islamic vote, helping him overcome the loss of some of his traditional base, through his shifting stance on secularism. Increasingly, Jokowi dresses in public in more traditional Muslim attire. He has also, controversially, picked a conservative Islamic cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his vice presidential running mate. In the conservative Muslim province of West Java, he’s consistently performing better than in 2014, when he lost by 19 points — though Prabowo is still expected to win more votes there.

“He’s certainly doing everything he can, in electoral terms, not to offend Muslim voters,” says R. William Liddle, professor and specialist on Indonesian politics at Ohio State University. “I think he’s going to win, and probably going to win bigger than last time.”

What critics see as Jokowi’s Faustian bargain is in keeping with a broader global pattern of leaders seen as progressive torchbearers striking compromises with more right-wing forces to stay in power. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, lost some of her sheen as a voice of humanitarian statesmanship with the 2016 E.U.-Turkey deal that limits the number of refugees who can enter Europe. But it helped her stay in power, as did a compromise with her interior minister, Horst Seehofer, last July, on allowing in refugees with pending asylum applications in other countries. Since 2011, secular governments in France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and Quebec in Canada have all banned the burqa in public spaces, keen not to lose voters to right-wing nationalist parties that are on the rise — while Seehofer’s Christian Social Union has in Bavaria insisted on hanging a cross at the entrance to public buildings.

Still, for many voters who wanted change and greater protections for religious minorities, Jokowi’s turn away has been disappointing. His choice of Amin was the cherry on the cake. “There’s a lot of debate among liberal-minded people, particularly among urban educated groups, and they are disappointed with Jokowi because he did not perform as well as expected,” says Patrick Ziegenhain, a Jakarta-based scholar and currently a visiting professor at Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia.

The first presidential debate of 2019, with Jokowi (far left), Prabowo (second from right) and their running mates facing off.

That the president still enjoys a healthy lead over his challenger is aided by the fact that he’s outperforming his 2014 numbers in conservative West Java and Banten, according to a recent poll from Roy Morgan Consulting. It also helps that the former Jokowi voters who are now disenchanted are turning to the Golput movement instead of backing the even more conservative Prabowo.

Despite that, the Golput movement represents a threat that Jokowi’s campaign knows it can’t ignore: If too many of his voters turn away, Prabowo could still sneak up on the president. “Jokowi’s camp is more concerned with … Golput than Prabowo,” says Abdil Mughis Mudhoffir, an Indonesian researcher at the University of Melbourne Asia Institute in Australia. The campaign is trying to limit the impact of that movement. The Indonesian Ulema Council, of which Amin, his running mate, was the former head, has even declared Golput haram or forbidden to Muslims.

But while Jokowi’s rightward shift might gain him reelection, it could open the floodgates for greater Islamization of Indonesian politics, and further empower far-right groups like the Front Pemuda Islam (Islamic Defenders Front), who want to turn the country from a secular one to an Islamist one, say experts.

“These Islamist types have really been successful in pushing the dialog to the right,” says Liddle. “Jokowi is trying to say to Islamists that you are no more pious than I am.”

What that’ll mean for Indonesia, even if Jokowi wins, remains a question, but there are growing concerns that Amin’s presence might allow Islamist ideology to creep into government. Jokowi, says Liddle, is likely to allow Amin a relatively free hand if they win, and that might mean key cabinet ministers who are conservative. “I don’t think he wants to antagonize Islamists who can mobilize street protest so effectively,” says Liddle.

If there’s one thing consistent about Jokowi, it is that he’s hard to predict. The hard-metal-loving secularist was the one who opened the door to conservative Muslim hard-liners. Will the old 2014 Jokowi return if he successfully overcomes the threat of the right-wing alliance against him in these elections? Or has Indonesia already changed, no matter who it elects?

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