Religion the dark horse in Indonesia election

Indonesia’s presidential race between Prabowo Subianto and Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo has been coloured by religion.

Indonesia's Prabowo Subianto (centre) is supported by hard-line groups, but his campaign states a commitment to pluralism [Al Jazeera]

Jakarta, Indonesia The campaign’s over. After a gruelling month in which Indonesia’s two presidential candidates criss-crossed the country and faced off in five debates, Jakarta is holding its breath ahead of the closest and perhaps most polarising election since Indonesia’s transition to democracy in 1998.

The candidates, forbidden from campaigning in the three days before the election, are waiting for Indonesia’s 187 million voters to decide on July 9. Meanwhile, throughout Jakarta, the ubiquitous placards and posters promoting the two men are being taken down.

A poster for former general Prabowo Subianto hung near an ethnic Chinese neighbourhood in North Jakarta promotes “anti-discrimination”, while nearby a banner for his rival, Jakarta governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo proclaims “pluralism”.

But Indonesians will be going to the polls after what appears to be a spate of religious tensions.

In general, Prabowo has been pandering to Islamist sentiment, and Jokowi has been more pluralist in his outlook.

by Gregory Fealy, Indonesia expert at Australian National University

Over the past few months, Christians in Yogyakarta – a religiously diverse city sometimes referred to as the “City of Tolerance” – have been assaulted or intimidated in several separate incidents.

In April, hardline Islamist groups announced the formation of an “Anti-Shia Alliance” to crack down on the practise of Shia Islam in Indonesia. The governor of West Java province sent an assistant supportive of the movement to attend its launch, according to the Jakarta Globe, where some wore black ski masks and jackets with the words “Heresy Hunters”.

Such groups represent a small minority in Indonesia, home to the largest number of Muslims in the world. Nevertheless, hardline groups have been on the rise in recent years, said Bonar Tigor, the deputy chair of the Setara Institute, a nongovernmental organisation that monitors religious freedom in Indonesia.

Setara has recorded a rise in attacks and intimidation directed against the Shia in Indonesia, from 10 incidents in 2012 to 30 in 2013 – which Tigor believes is influenced by events in the Middle East, where wars in Syria and Iraq have broken down along largely Sunni-Shia lines. The conflicts have attracted thousands of foreign fighters, and the Indonesian government estimates that 50 of its own citizens are fighting in Syria – though some estimates are higher. Fundraisers for the rebel group formerly known as ISIL have also been openly held In Indonesia.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian government has been accused by some of not doing enough to address intolerance against religious minorities. Suryadharma Ali, Indonesia’s religious affairs minister until his resignation in May, had said Shia should convert to Sunni Islam to prevent violence against them and that the Ahmadiyyah sect, which identifies as Muslim but believes in a prophet after Mohammad, should be banned.

About 87 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, the vast majority of whom are Sunni.

Of presidents and pluralism

According to Tigor, prior to Jokowi’s emergence as a political figure in 2012, when he was elected governor of Jakarta, members of religious minorities tended to support a Prabowo presidency – viewing him as a forceful figure able to crack down on impunity, and noting that his brother and mother are both Christian. Now, he says, Jokowi is the favourite among religious minorities.

“In general, Prabowo has been pandering to Islamist sentiment and Jokowi has been more pluralist in his outlook,” said Gregory Fealy, an Indonesia expert at Australian National University. Accordingly, three of the four Islamist parties that won seats in parliament have joined Prabowo’s coalition; the fourth, the moderate PKB, supports Jokowi.

Prabowo has also been endorsed by the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a hardline group whose members have been involved in attacks against religious minorities, bars and nightclubs.

Asked about the endorsement from the controversial group, Fadli Zon, the deputy chairman of Prabowo’s Gerindra Party, replied: “We welcome anyone, including organisations from Islamic groups” as well as those representing other religions. “We need the support from many people,” he said. “We are not actively inviting [the FPI], but for their support we are thankful.”

 Indonesia campaign highlights sectarian issues

Meanwhile, hardliners look with suspicion upon Jokowi. Outside a mosque in central Jakarta, Athian Ali – chairman of the Anti-Shia Alliance – told Al Jazeera he worried that the Jakarta governor “has a big potential for destroying the Muslim people and Islam” – even declaring it haram, or illegal under Islamic law, to vote for him.

Prabowo’s party, itself, caused a stir when a manifesto published earlier this year stated that “the state is also expected to guarantee the purity of religious teachings … from all forms of heresy and deviation”.

All this has alarmed Indonesia’s Shia, said Ahmed Hidayat, thesecretary-general of Ahlulbait Indonesia, a Shia civil society group that is not politically affiliated. “That’s what makes most of Shia people here vote for Jokowi,” said Hidayat from the group’s office in South Jakarta, estimating that about 80 percent will back him.

But Zon countered accusations that a Prabowo presidency would be detrimental to Indonesia’s religious minorities. “I think Prabowo has a very pluralistic view of Indonesia. We are already committed to unity and diversity,” he said, adding that Prabowo has “a very pluralistic family”.

Changing religious laws

Tigor has two recommendations for the next president: rescind Indonesia’s blasphemy law, which radical groups use to justify attacks, and roll back regulations on building places of worship.

Currently, at least 60 people in the vicinity of a proposed house of worship must express support before it can be built – which is often a difficult hurdle to surmount. Religious minorities are affected the most, but the law cuts both ways: In Christian-majority areas of Indonesia such as Papua, for instance, building a mosque can be difficult.

But Tigor is not optimistic that either candidate would be able to implement such changes. Although Prabowo has a large coalition whose parties hold 63 percent of seats in parliament, some elements in his coalition would oppose reforming laws on religion.

The groups in Jokowi’s coalition would likely be more supportive, said Tigor. But with just 37 percent of seats in parliament, Jokowi’s front may face difficulties in implementing an ambitious agenda.

Rino Wijaya, a volunteer at a Calvinist church in the hills of Bogor south of Jakarta, said Christian voters are split. The fact that Prabowo’s mother and brother – a businessman who is one of the wealthiest men in Indonesia – are Christian “is a factor”, said Wijaya. But at his church, more people support Jokowi because of what they say is his good track record on religious tolerance as governor of Jakarta.

Wijaya added that churches in the area have faced difficulties in obtaining the necessary licenses to open.

Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier

Source: Al Jazeera