Indonesia's presidential election is a little over a month away, and a new survey by Lingkaran Survei Indonesia (LSI) just released pretty surprising findings on what voters think about the country's political climate.
The survey came out six month into the 2019 campaign period, and one of the key findings is that 3.5 percent of Muslim Indonesians wish that the Indonesian politics looks more like that of the Middle East. If this sounds vague to you, it's because it is. Middle East is a culturally and politically diverse place, yet the survey doesn't elaborate on what it is about the region that Muslim Indonesian voters wish their country could learn from.
Let's say the voters want Indonesia to be more like Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a kingdom, while Indonesia is a democratic country. Would this mean that some Indonesians prefer the country to launch military intervention in neighboring countries, have a love-hate relationship with Israel, and silence opposition voices?
Despite the vagueness of this part of the findings—and 3.5 percent of voters just doesn't seem like a lot—LSI says that there's more to it.
This year's election feels somewhat like a repeat of the last one in 2014 because once again Indonesians have to pick between President Joko Widodo and General Prabowo Subianto. But some things have changed between then and now. Islamic conservatism is on the rise, even in public schools where students are supposed to learn pluralism and diversity. When Jokowi announced Ma'ruf Amin, the Islamic scholar that chairs the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) and a respected figure in Indonesia's biggest Muslim organization Nahdlatul 'Ulama (NU), as his running mate, some people weren't surprised.
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“Prabowo is more electable in Muslim communities who want Indonesia to become like the Middle East," said Ardian Sopa, a LSI researcher, in a press conference last week. "From there, we can see a shift in votes, either it’s up or down. Jokowi's electability rating has dropped among Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and PA 212 supporters, but increased among NU communities. Prabowo’s position is relatively stable among NU supporters, and rising in PA 212 and FPI supporters.”
Fahri Hamzah, deputy chairman of the House of Representatives who is a member of the Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno campaign team, responded negatively to the survey result. According to him, the conclusion released by LSI is very tendentious toward Muslim voters in Indonesia.
“I think the survey is dangerous because it included elements that can cause conflict between citizens,” Fahri told Tirto.id.
LSI said there were 87.8 percent of Muslim respondents involved in their survey. Among them, 84.7 percent of them said that Indonesia must stick to the Pancasila, the core ideology of the Indonesian government which includes religious diversity; 1.1 percent said that Indonesia should be like Western countries; and 3.5 percent thought Indonesia should take the Middle East as an example. Of the total 3.5 percent, 54.1 percent said they support Prabowo and the rest said they support Jokowi. The slight difference shows that both groups are supported by conservatives.
The influence of religious conservatism has been a dominant issue in Indonesia since the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial elections. Mass mobilization of the country's conservative Muslims peaked in the form of the 212 protests, which resulted in the imprisonment to Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, then incumbent governor, on the grounds of blasphemy. This movement claimed to have led the Anies Baswedan-Sandiaga Uno pair to victory in the subsequent election. A wave of protests led by Muslims in Jakarta successfully influenced the gubernatorial election, and became a symbol of victory of religious politics in Indonesia’s most pluralistic city.
The consequence of the continuous use of religious sentiment has seeped into other aspects of politics. For instance, racism against ethnic Chinese Indonesians has continued to gain traction. The "native" versus "non-native" narrative has time and time again been evoked by various politicians. And the political climate leading up to next month's general elections has been wrought with emotionally-driven campaigns from both candidates, like this competition of which candidate goes to Friday prayers more often.
Lailatul Fitriyah, a doctoral candidate at the University of Notre Dame, told VICE how the politicization of religion in Indonesia will always be closely linked to the narrative of racial politics. This trend has been symptomatic in Indonesia for the past 10 years, and has taken and even stronger hold since the 2017 gubernatorial elections, she said.
“The tendency nowadays is that religion has become something vulgar and visceral that’s also being sold as a political commodity,” Laily said. “That’s why Arabic elements, who in the past faced alienation like the Chinese ethnicity does today, don’t fall under the 'native' category, but have instead become an ideal prototype. If you have Arab blood, that means you’re more Muslim, you’re more original, more native.”
Whether or not the survey is legitimate, it’s safe to say that the desire to emulate the Middle East, whatever that means, didn't appear in a vacuum. Such sentiments, if they really do exist in a portion of Indonesians’ minds, is more likely a result of politicians making decisions made on the basis of religion in a political battle.
This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.