Politics, Islam, and Elections in Indonesia

Spotlight BY Dr Temjenmeren Ao*

Politics, Islam, and Elections in Indonesia

President Suharto began to openly sponsor the establishment of the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals’ or Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia [ICMI], which was a major new Islamic organisation. Further, the emergence of Nahdlatul Ulama [NU] under the leadership of Abdurrahman Wahid began voicing support for the democratisation in Indonesia by arguing that Islam and democracy are mutually compatible.

The 12th General Elections held on April 17, 2019, are the fifth successive elections held since the 1999 referendum, which brought to an end the three decades of authoritarian rule in Indonesia. In this election, for the very first time, over 185 million Indonesian electorates simultaneously voted for their Members of Parliament and their President. The Indonesian Parliament consists of the House of Representatives (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat/DPR) with 560 members and the Regional Representative Council (Dewan Perwakilan Daerah/DPD) with 132 members; both houses are elected for a five-year term.[1] The Presidential election is between the incumbent President Joko Widodo along with Maruf Amin, for the post of the Vice-President, and Lt Gen (ret) Prabowo Subianto, with Sandiaga Solehuddin Uno, the current Deputy Governor of Jakarta, as his running mate.

While Indonesia remains on the path of democratic consolidation, being the largest Muslim nation in the world, one would assume a close linkage between Islam and politics. This also brings into the picture the future of the State’s continued adherence to the five principles or Pancasila in which ‘belief in one God’ constitutes one of the principles. Sukarno made the argument that if the new state was based on ‘belief in God’ then it would be neither an Islamic nor a secular state but a ‘religious’ state. Therefore, all religions, including Islam, in Indonesia would be free to practice their religious obligations.[2] This emphasis by its founding father, enabled Indonesia right from its inception as a Republic, to strike a balance between religion and the state. While sections of the Indonesian wanted the implementation of Islamic Shari’ah, the government since the time of Sukarno has been consistently practicing secularism in terms of their governance. Under Sukarno’s Guided Democracy (1957-65) and Suharto’s New Order (1966-1998), there has been an emphasis on non-religious nature of the State and its policies.[3]

Islam in Indonesia was introduced in 600 AD and was relatively moderate, as it had the influences of Hinduism and ancient Javanese religions. At the end of the 19th century, waves of ‘reformist’ conservative Islam came from West Asia, seeking to modernise Islam in Indonesia. Since then, tensions began to emerge between the existing more tolerant Islam and the new imported and conservative form of Islam.[4] Wahid Hasyim, who was the head of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) – the largest social and cultural Islamic organisation – in 1945 acknowledged the nationalists’ concerns about preserving the unity of the State and agreed that for the sake of the Republic, Islam would not be granted preferential treatment.[5] There, however, seems to be a continuous challenge in keeping the State separate from Islam in Indonesia. In 1953, Sukarno voiced his fears of the negative implications for national unity, if Muslim Indonesians pressed their demands for an Islamic State, or for constitutional or other legal provisions which would constitute formal recognition of Islam by the State. During Sukarno’s era of Guided Democracy, it was characterised by ongoing secessionist movements in various parts of the country and Islamic-inspired armed struggle against the central government called the Darul Islam. The issue of Islamic political demands on the state was vividly illustrated in the Darul Islam revolts against the Central Government between 1948 and 1962. The series of Islamic-inspired armed uprising in West Java, South Sulawesi, and Aceh were eventually put down by the Indonesian army. The single greatest consequence of the Darul Islam revolts is that the Islamic threat posed a major challenge to the continued integration of the Republic.[6]

During the Suharto regime, the relationship between the government and Islam began to change dramatically. After 1985, President Suharto began to openly sponsor the establishment of the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals’ or Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia [ICMI], which was a major new Islamic organisation. Further, the emergence of Nahdlatul Ulama [NU] under the leadership of Abdurrahman Wahid began voicing support for the democratisation in Indonesia by arguing that Islam and democracy are mutually compatible. These new organisations attracted the participation of Muslim activists, scholars, and politicians who had been opposed to Suharto in the past. In the political spheres, one of the most striking developments was the apparent abandonment of any expressions of Islamic discomfort with Pancasila. Where in the past, Islamic politicians were worried about the use of Pancasila as an anti-Islamic tool, they began praising the government as having done more for Islam.[7]

Ever since the fall of Suharto, there is a growing tendency in Indonesia towards returning to the roots, to the Arab worldview on Islam, with an emphasis on outward observation. For instance, the growth in the usage of head covers and scarf among women in Java which is the epicentre of Indonesian syncretism. Though the Muslim majority in Indonesia is not in favour of violence and radical Islam, it is also not totally against the idea of pursuing a purer version of their religion.[8] In the 2019 Indonesian Presidential elections, we find the incumbent President Jokowi nominating Ma’ruf Amin as his Vice President Nomine, as a result of electoral compulsion. Mr Amin, who has been the chairman of Indonesia’s Ulama Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, or MUI), the semi-official umbrella organization of Islamic group since 2007, and the supreme leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama – Indonesia’s largest mass Muslim organization – since 2015;[9] it raises concerns on the growing Islamisation of the Republic. Although, many analysts argued that Amin won’t likely win President Jokowi any additional votes. However, by bringing him as his running mate, the incumbent has been able to cement his support amongst the conservative Islamic community, and also divide the so-called 212 Movement. This movement formed by the conservative coalition was setting its sights on stopping Jokowi’s re-election by terming him as ‘Un-Islamic’ and a closet communist.[10]

It remains to be seen, how Indonesia, as it continues to grow in its democratic path, manages to maintain the secularity of the Republic as envisioned by its founding fathers. After the fall of Suharto in May 1998, the Reformasi movement in Indonesia voiced strong support for the conduct of an early election. Given Indonesia’s long authoritarian history, the elections of 1999 for the very first time provided legitimacy to the newly elected legislators, by empowering them to begin the full course of constitutional reforms. The idea to put elections before completing Indonesia’s Constitutional reform was done to ensure the inclusion and participation of all entities and groups, which were averse to the idea of democratisation. The incorporation of a competitive process for the elections of the legislators and the head of the Republic, helped set the right path towards democratic consolidation, by including the diverse ethnic and religious groups that are a part of this large Archipelago. The 2019 election is a testimony of Indonesia resolve towards remaining on the path moving to ensure the realisation of a liberal democratic order. And even though, there remain concerns on the increasing Islamisation in the political sphere, the victory of secular parties such as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, the Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra) – which is the largest opposition party after the 2014 elections – would ensure that the issue of Islam would not become the basis for the voting by the Indonesian electorate. But rather issues of development, growth, stability, and the unity maintained through the ongoing democratic consolidation of the Republic would remain crucial.

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Author

* Author is a Research Fellow for Southeast Asia, ICWA

Refernces:

[1]“Election in Indonesia”, Facts and Details, 2015, http://factsanddetails.com/indonesia/Government_Military_Crime/sub6_5a/entry-4062.html, (Accessed on March 11, 2019.

[2] Douglas E. Ramage, Politics in Indonesia: Democracy, Islam and the Ideology of Tolerance, (Routledge: London, 1995), p.14.

[3] Rizal Sukma, Islam in Indonesian Foreign Policy, (Routledge Curzon: London, 2003), p. 3-5

[4] Superintendent Craig Riviere, “The Evolution of jihadist-Salafism in Indonesia, Malaysia and The Philippines, and its impact on security in Southeast Asia”, Indo-Pacific Strategic papers, The Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies, Australian Defence College, November 2016, http://www.defence.gov.au/ADC/Publications/IndoPac/Riviere_IPSP.pdf, accessed on October 9, 2017.

[5] Rizal Sukma, Islam in Indonesian Foreign Policy, (Routledge Curzon: London, 2003), p. 3-5.

[6] Douglas E. Ramage, Politics in Indonesia: Democracy, Islam and the Ideology of Tolerance, (Routledge: London, 1995), p. 17-19.

[7] Douglas E. Ramage, Politics in Indonesia: Democracy, Islam and the Ideology of Tolerance, (Routledge: London, 1995), p. 43-44.

[8]Vibhanshu Shekhar, Indonesia’s Rise: Seeking Regional and Global Roles, (Pentagon Press: New Delhi, 2014), p. 156-161.

[9]“Indonesia: Vice Presidential Candidate Has Anti-Rights Record”, Human Right s Watch, August 10, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/08/10/indonesia-vice-presidential-candidate-has-anti-rights-record, accessed on November 29, 2018.

[10]John Macbeth, “Widodo puts Islam front and Centre ahead of polls”, Asia Times, January 12, 2018, http://www.atimes.com/article/widodo-puts-islam-front-and-center-ahead-of-polls/, accessed on January 18, 2018.

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