Election 2019

Jokowi Supporters Wrestle With His Controversial VP Choice

The president says his ticket is "complimentary," but some are calling it a contradiction.
August 10, 2018, 12:54pm
Presiden Joko Widodo dan calon wakil presidennya Ma'ruf Amin (kanan) saat mendaftar ke Komisi Pemilihan Umum di Jakarta, Jumat (10/8). Foto oleh Darren Whiteside/Reuters

President Joko Widodo's decision to select an influential, but controversial, Islamic scholar as his vice presidential candidate has left some of the president's supporters wrangling with a tough question only one day into the campaign—how badly do they want to win?

Many saw Jokowi's choice of Ma'ruf Amin, of both Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), as a calculated move meant to preemptively shut down the kind of religious politicking and smear campaigns that have reared their heads in recent elections.


Jokowi's former running mate in Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, was brought down by attacks led by Islamic fundamentalist groups that criticized his capacity, as a Christian, to run a Muslim-majority city as governor of Jakarta and accused him of committing blasphemy.

Ma'ruf comes with Islamic credentials few others could bring to the Jokowi campaign. He also brings with him the tacit backing of the NU, a massive and influential Islamic organization that has come to Jokowi's defense in the past.

"Jokowi’s administration took a hit, especially during the Jakarta gubernatorial election, and it was NU who had their back," said Ari Ganjar, a political expert at Bandung's Universitas Padjadjaran. "When they passed the Law on Mass Organizations, NU fought hard to help Jokowi maintain his image [so he wasn't seen as being anti-Islam]."

And this affiliation could dramatically change the tenor of the campaign. Jokowi's supporters hope that, by selecting Ma'ruf as the VP candidate, the coming campaign is free of the kinds of divisive, sectarian, and racial rhetoric (together called "SARA" in Indonesia) that tainted the Jakarta governor's race.

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Much of those campaigns came from Islamist groups backing Governor Anies Baswedan and his deputy Sandiaga Uno in that election. Both men ran on the the Gerindra ticket, and Prabowo Subianto, Jokowi's rival in this election and Gerindra's founder, tagged Sandi as his running mate for the presidential race.

But while groups like the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) were cozy with Gerindra in the Jakarta election, Prabowo and Sandi are running a campaign about economic populism, not religion, in the presidential race.


This could be because Prabowo has always campaigned on promises that hardcore nationalism would fix the economy and raise up the poor, or it could be because, as some Jokowi supporters believe, the choice of Ma'ruf left them little room to attack the president on religious grounds.

"The most important thing is for the coalition to work and compete without hatred," said Rohamurmzy, a politician with the United Development Party (PPP) and a member of the Jokowi coalition. "We want nothing to do with SARA-related hatred. I hope now people can see who walks with the ulama and who leaves the ulama."

So what's the controversy over Jokowi's VP choice? It's because Ma'ruf, during his time with the MUI, has a track record of supporting the kinds of policies that fly in the face of many in Jokowi's urban base, including playing a visible role in blasphemy trial of Jakarta's now-jailed governor.

"Let’s not forget that Ma’ruf Amin is himself a political figure," Ari, of Universitas Padjadjaran, explained. "Although he’s non-partisan, he used to be really close to [former President] Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He, however, has made contradicting statements. On the one hand, he’s 'against Ahok' but on the other hand he’s 'defending the government'.

"It’s very common in politics. We tend to overlook Ma’ruf Amin’s political stances. During SBY’s time, MUI issued repressive fatwas against minorities. Those are responsible for the intolerance in the country."


Ma'ruf has been a vocal supporter of anti-LGBTQ legislation, and, during his time as part of a religious council serving SBY, he helped draft a law that, even today, is central to the kinds of forced closures of houses of worship of Christian and minority Muslim sects that occur with startling frequency in some provinces.

That law, the so-called Religious Harmony Law, changed the balancing act between majority and minority religions in individual communities, by requiring all new houses of worship to receive a permit supported by their neighbors before opening their doors. In places like West Java, this law allowed local Islamist organizations to successfully shutter churches and Ahmadiyah mosques under the pretext that they lacked necessary permits. Minority faiths—Christians, Catholics, Buddhists, and non-Sunni Muslims—bore the brunt of this policy, despite the fact that, according to studies, the majority of the houses of worship operating without permits were mosques.

"Ma’ruf Amin also issued anti-Ahmadiyah, anti-Gafatar, and anti-LGBT decrees," said Andreas Harsono, a Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "He was the reason behind the series of demonstration against Ahok. He wrote the statement about Ahok. Ma’ruf is a conservative who played a role in issuing laws that are discriminative to religious and gender minorities."

Ma'ruf Amin holds up a copy of Playboy Indonesia. He played an important role in the trial against the magazine's founder, which ended with him behind bars on pornography charges despite the fact that the magazine contained no nudity. Photo by Dadang Tri/Reuters.

How does all of this sit with Jokowi's supporters? For some, it's leaving them feeling conflicted about the decisions of a man who rode into office back in 2014 as a reformer and the face of a modern, open Indonesia. But, for others, Friday's event at the General Elections Commission (KPU) headquarters, in Central Jakarta, was a chance to back Jokowi, regardless of his VP pick.

"This is his decision," said Rudy Sinaga, who was in the crowd outside the event. "I don’t really respect Ma’ruf, but this is Jokowi’s executive decision. I’m sure Jokowi has thought this through and he has his reasons for why Ma’ruf is on his ticket.


"There are some things that I, especially Ahokers (people who backed Ahok in the last election), dislike him for. But, I’m sure Jokowi has a plan to unite us again."

Grace Natalie, the head of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), told VICE that she would continue to support Jokowi, "irrespective of who was on the ticket." When asked how the PSI, a young multi-ethnic, multi-faith party, felt about some of the causes Ma'ruf had supported in the past, Grace explained that, to her, the past was the past.

"It would be intolerant of us to judge Ma’ruf," she told VICE. "I suggest that we start anew, with a clean slate. Let’s just move forward and think of what our nation will be in the next election. That’s the context we need to use. We should be tolerant people and thus we need to give Jokowi and Ma’ruf a chance. I think they’re nationalists and they will fight for our nation."

Politics is a complicated game, especially in a country as big, and politically crowded as Indonesia. Presidential candidates need to secure the backing of numerous political parties, some of which carry contradictory aims, while also keeping one step ahead of potential attacks by their opponents in order to win.

Jokowi's supporters believe that Ma'ruf was a wise choice, one who will actually make the campaign less hateful in the coming months, despite his conservative track record.

"He's very influential," one Jokowi supporter, a man named Tumpal, told VICE's reporters on Friday. "Choosing him is a good way to counter the radicalism issue in Indonesia."


Others told VICE that they believed Ma'ruf would protect the rights of religious minorities, despite the fact that he has done exactly the opposite for much of his political career.

"Amen," another supporter, a woman named Christine, said. "It's just like his name, Amin. We hope he can embrace us, the minority. I’m sure he can. I’m sure. He can do it."

It's still too early to tell if the majority of Jokowi's supporters share the same willingness to embrace Ma'ruf as their VP candidate, but, at least for those who made it out on Friday morning, the choice is clear.

"This is for the best," Rudy said.

— VICE staff writer Arzia Wargadiredja and Yvette Tanamal contributed to this report.