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  • Islam and Indonesia's 2019 Presidential Election
  • Thomas Pepinsky (bio)

Indonesia's 2019 presidential election pitted incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) against challenger Prabowo Subianto in a repeat of the 2014 presidential contest. As in 2014, both Jokowi and Prabowo campaigned on nationalist platforms that defended Indonesia's multireligious national ideology of Pancasila and sought to win votes from all Indonesians.1 But even more so than in 2014, the 2019 campaign saw growing differences between Islamist and pluralist camps in Indonesian politics. Jokowi's victory is a reassuring sign for pluralists concerned about rising Islamist forces in Indonesian politics, although the selection of the influential cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his vice president signals that Islam will continue to play an important role in Jokowi's second term in office.

Digging deeper into the 2019 presidential election results reveals important trends in religion and politics in Indonesia. The most important of these has been a widening electoral cleavage based on religious identity rather than ideology. This cleavage, however, interacts with other types of political cleavages in this diverse multiethnic democracy. Electoral and demographic data from the most recent election helps reveal the contours of this emerging religious cleavage structure and provides clues about its implications going forward. Before turning to this data, I begin with a brief overview of religion, ideology, and partisanship in contemporary Indonesia.

Islamists, Pluralists, and Party Ideology in Contemporary Indonesia

One central cleavage in Indonesian politics is between Islamists and non-Islamists. Terminology is important here: by "Islamist" I mean parties, organizations, or movements that explicitly seek to align national politics with Islamic principles.2 Non-Islamists, then, are a broad category that includes religious Muslims who are comfortable with Indonesia's multireligious constitution, Muslims who hold a more liberal or pluralist [End Page 54] political orientation, secular nationalists for whom religion is a private matter, non-Muslims, and others. Accordingly, discussions of the Islamist cleavage vary in their understanding of what its true "other" is: nationalism, pluralism, liberalism, secularism, or something else altogether. In truth, the opposite of Islamism in Indonesia is all these to some degree.

Plainly, not all Muslims are Islamists. Indonesia's population is nearly 90% Muslim, yet the Indonesian constitution grants no special rights to Islam over other religions and instead embraces a multireligious ideology known as Pancasila ("Five Principles"), which explicitly endorses the belief in God without using the word "Allah." Given Indonesia's demographics, this is only possible because a substantial number of Muslims do not support Islamism. Instead, since democratization in 1999, the country has seen vibrant contestation over the role of Islam in society as well as in public life, with Muslims on both sides. The largest political parties in Indonesia are either multireligious parties that are holdovers from the authoritarian regime of Suharto (the Golkar Party and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) or multireligious parties that were formed after democratization as personal vehicles for aspiring presidential candidates (such as the Democratic Party and the Great Indonesia Movement Party). Although Islamist parties exist, they struggle to earn the support that the pluralist or nationalist parties win.

Nevertheless, Islamist forces played an essential role in Indonesia's 2019 presidential elections. Both Jokowi and Prabowo ran broadly nationalist campaigns designed to appeal to all voters, at least rhetorically. Each campaign earned endorsements from key Islamist parties: the United Development Party (PPP) endorsed Jokowi, and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the smaller Crescent Star Party (PBB) endorsed Prabowo. And yet, Islamist elites and civil society organizations sided overwhelmingly with Prabowo and against Jokowi, particularly hard-line Islamist groups like the Islamic Defenders Front. As a result, at least in popular understanding, the 2019 election pitted one candidate with a pluralist, multireligious platform and constituency against one endorsed by Islamists.

This split between Jokowi and Prabowo, with Islamists lining up primarily behind the latter, mirrors the 2014 election campaign.3 Cognizant of the mobilizing potential of religious identity, Jokowi and his campaign also courted influential conservative Muslims and Islamists in the run-up [End Page 55] to the 2019 election.4 This culminated in the selection of Ma'ruf Amin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) and...


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