The battle lines for Indonesia’s 2019 presidential election were drawn Friday as the incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo formally registered as a candidate after choosing a conservative Islamic cleric as his running mate.
Jokowi, the first Indonesian president from outside the military and political elite, announced his vice-presidential candidate, Ma’ruf Amin, on Thursday after weeks of fevered speculation in local media. Jokowi’s pick has become bigger news in Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy, than an earthquake on the island of Lombok that killed more than 300 people.
Jokowi’s pick disappointed liberals but analysts say it shores up his position among conservative Muslims who demonstrated their political power last year with the ouster of Jakarta’s minority Christian governor, a Jokowi ally, who was later imprisoned for blasphemy. Attacking the popular Jokowi as insufficiently religious is one of the few cards his opponents have.
Amin, 75, heads the influential Indonesian Ulema Council that issues fatwas, or religious edicts, and the advisory council of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization. He was one of the clerics who galvanized street protests of hundreds of thousands against the Jakarta governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, for his alleged blasphemy.
Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia, both Muslim-majority nations, have become important if sometimes unpredictable bastions of democracy in Southeast Asia, a region of more than 600 million people where authoritarian rule has been the norm. Elections in Malaysia in May ended the 60-year domination of the Malay coalition, and Indonesia has established a two-decade track record of free and largely peaceful elections since the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998.
“Democracy is not war, democracy is not hostility, but is a contest of ideas, track record and achievements,” Jokowi said Friday.
The son of a carpenter, Jokowi rose from political obscurity as mayor of the central Javanese city of Solo to become governor of Jakarta and then president in 2014.
Upgrading Indonesia’s creaking infrastructure has been the signature policy of his first term. Much of it has been a delicate political dance, managing the demands of his moderate base, increasingly powerful Islamic conservatives, a complicated parliamentary coalition and the military, which has never completely accepted its diminished role following the end of the Suharto dictatorship.
He has frequently disappointed his moderate supporters but they’re unlikely to turn to Jokowi’s opponent for a second time, nationalist politician and former general Prabowo Subianto. He is running with businessman and deputy Jakarta governor Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno. Both officially registered as candidates after Friday prayers.
“Jokowi has picked an Islamist running mate to shore up his conservative and religious flank in a contest against the ultra-nationalist Prabowo, who in the past has worked closely with hard-line Islamists to undermine the president,” said Eurasia Group analyst Peter Mumford in a report.
The selection of Amin further entrenches the mixing of religion and politics in Indonesia, he said, but provides a “very strong shield against identity-politics attacks aimed at Jokowi, who is often accused by the opposition of being insufficiently Muslim and too pro-minority.”
A longtime commander in Indonesia’s “Kopassus” special forces, Subianto was discharged from the military in 1998 after Kopassus soldiers tortured activists who opposed dictator Suharto. Human rights groups allege he led a 1983 massacre in East Timor in which more than 300 people were killed.
There was a celebratory atmosphere and snarled traffic outside the election commission in central Jakarta as Jokowi and Amin arrived. After registering, Jokowi praised his opponents.
“Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno are the best sons of the nation like me and Mr. Ma’ruf Amin. They want to struggle for our beloved nation,” he said.
The 2014 presidential election was marred by dirty campaigning and wild internet rumors that Jokowi was a secret communist, accusations often used in Indonesia to discredit or intimidate political opponents.
Prabowo testily refused to accept the election results and withdrew just hours before the announcement of official results.