Indonesia’s elections reveal a nation at the crossroads between pluralism and intolerance

When the official results confirming the re-election of Joko Widodo as President of Indonesia were announced on 21 May, supporters of his rival, former General Prabowo Subianto, took to the streets. Riots led to carnage in the capital, Jakarta, with at least six people dead. The divisions unleashed by the election campaign were exposed in their ugliest form.

Until that point, Indonesia’s elections had been peaceful and orderly, despite what almost all observers describe as the most divisive campaign in the country’s recent history. On 17 April, over 190 million people cast their votes for the presidency and the national, regional and local legislatures, in one of the world’s biggest and most complex democratic exercises in recent times. To conduct such a poll, in the world’s third largest democracy and fourth most populous nation, across the world’s largest archipelago of 17,508 islands stretching from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans, is a significant feat.

I spent three weeks in Indonesia during the election period. I witnessed the final week of the campaign, election day itself, and the first twelve days after the elections. I travelled to four cities – Jakarta, Medan in North Sumatra, Surabaya in East Java, and Pontianak in West Kalimantan – where I met civil society activists, religious communities and government advisers. I left Indonesia with profoundly mixed feelings.

A qualified victory for democracy and diversity

On the one hand, despite such a divisive campaign, the result was a victory, albeit qualified, for democracy and diversity. President Widodo, seen to be a defender of Indonesia’s pluralism, was re-elected by a margin of about ten per cent, defeating Prabowo, the son-in-law of the former dictator Suharto who himself is accused of serious human rights violations and had assembled a coalition of Islamist parties who have a very different vision of Indonesia’s future.

Prabowo had played identity politics throughout the campaign, but did not succeed. Widodo’s victory gives Indonesia a chance to move away from the path of intolerance.

And yet on the other hand, the campaign stirred up religious intolerance and identity politics in a profoundly dangerous way. For the past decade or more intolerance has been rising in Indonesia, as our reports have shown, but this campaign took it to new levels.

A new level of religious intolerance

I saw the effects of this on election day. I visited one polling station where I met a 79 year-old man, Mohammad Thohir, who told me he backed Prabowo. When I asked why, he said that Widodo had only been elected “because of the Chinese and the Christians” and that he wanted to change that.

I also sat with a member of the vigilante Islamist group Front Pembela Islam (FPI) – or ‘Islamic Defenders Front’ – outside the home of their leader, hardline cleric Habib Rizieq, who is in exile in Saudi Arabia after fleeing two years ago following pornography charges. The FPI is well-known for attacking Christians, Ahmadiyyas and other minorities and forcing places of worship to close. I have documented their abuses many times over the past decade, and I have met former members, but this was the first time I  sat down to talk with a serving FPI member – indeed, one who belongs to the associated Islamic Defenders Army.

Headquarters of the Front Pembela Islam (FPI).

I asked him about FPI’s vision for Indonesia. “Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country. We want Islamic teachings to be implemented in full in every area of life,” he said. “Those who do not implement them, we give them a warning, and then we send in our Islamic Defenders Army.” I asked why FPI was supporting Prabowo for President. “Because he has promised us he will implement our vision,” he said.

I heard about the effects of the campaign in West Kalimantan, where people spoke of “high tension”. A province torn apart by ethnic violence twenty years ago now faces religious divisions. A Muslim journalist told me that “many people think Muslims have to vote for Prabowo because he has so many Muslim leaders on his side … People said if Muslims did not vote for Prabowo, they were betraying their religion.”

Giving the voices of intolerance a platform

Although Widodo’s victory prevents the realisation of the Islamists’ vision, Widodo himself played the religion card by selecting as his vice-presidential running mate a conservative cleric, Maru’f Amin, author of many intolerant fatwas (religious edicts) against the rights of minorities.

His supporters would argue that such a move was designed to neutralise the use of religion in the campaign, as his opponents questioned his Islamic credentials. But capitulating to the voices of intolerance and giving a religious conservative such a platform does not bode well. One can only hope that Amin’s influence will be limited, or that he will adapt to his role as vice-president in a way that recognises Indonesia’s multi-religious electorate.

Nonetheless there are several reasons for hope for Indonesia, alongside causes for concern.

I visited St Joseph’s Church in Medan on Palm Sunday – a church which, on Sunday 29 August 2016, had been attacked by an attempted suicide bomber. On Palm Sunday, the church was packed, a clear sign that for Indonesia’s Christians, faith and love triumph over terror. I sat behind the choir, the only place where there were any seats left, and felt the joy of the congregation as they lifted the roof with worship. The choir, known as ‘Magnificat’, has been invited by Pope Francis to sing in Rome next year.

That spirit was also evident in Santa Maria Tak Bercela church in Surabaya, one of three churches attacked on Sunday 13 May last year by a family of suicide bombers. More than 30 people were injured and six killed that day, but during the Easter Triduum there was not a spare seat to be found.

On Maundy Thursday I turned up fifteen minutes before the start, to find 5,000 people in this parish church. Not only was I unable to get anywhere near the church itself, I could not even get into the compound. There was an overflow from the church, and an overflow from the overflow. I stood with worshippers in the street outside. On Good Friday, I had learned my lesson and arrived an hour early, but even then I was only just able to get a seat. And at the Easter Vigil, the line extended down the aisle as 76 people were baptised. A church that a year ago was a scene of terror and trauma was this year a place teeming with faith and life.

“Building Indonesia together”

I have hope, too, as a result of the number of inter-faith initiatives, at a grassroots and national level, designed to counter intolerance. In Medan, a Sunni-Shi’a institute promotes dialogue, and the Ahmadiyya community told me how their problems have decreased as a result of social projects such as street-cleaning which they have initiated with the wider community.

A remarkable Catholic priest, Fr Felix Supranto, has developed an inter-faith dialogue programme in Panongan sub-district of Tangerang, in Banten province just outside Jakarta, after encountering some hostility a few years ago. At his invitation, I met with a group of about 20 local Muslim leaders and government officials who spoke of the importance of inter-religious relationships.

“I always remind my students that we can’t build this country based on one religion,” said one cleric who runs a pesantren, or Islamic boarding school. “We have to be together with other religions and ethnicities, to build Indonesia together. That is why it is so important to maintain harmony. At the core of every religion is the teaching to love each other and treat each other better.”

Yahya Cholil Staquf, General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the world’s largest Muslim organisation, told me of his vision to defend pluralism and build a moderate, peaceful Islam, and pointed me to the words of the Nusantara Statement adopted in Yogyakarta in October 2018: “We call upon people of goodwill of every faith and nation to join in building a global consensus to prevent the political weaponisation of Islam, whether by Muslims or non-Muslims, and to curtail the spread of communal hatred by fostering the emergence of a truly just and harmonious world order, founded upon respect for the equal rights and dignity of every human being.”

A week before the election, I was invited by Alissa Wahid, the daughter of Indonesia’s former President Abdurrhman Wahid, to a remarkable gathering of religious leaders, scholars and activists to promote ‘Human Fraternity, Living in Peace and Coexistence’.

It aimed to build on the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, signed in Abu Dhabi in February 2019 by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, and to develop the concepts in the Indonesian context. That document states clearly that “freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action” and emphasises that it is “important to reinforce the bond of fundamental human rights in order to help ensure a dignified life for all.” Let us hope that such principles gain root in Indonesia.

With such voices and such initiatives, Indonesia has a chance to pull back from the brink.

As our new report argues, President Widodo must make it the priority of his second term to strengthen Indonesia’s tradition of religious pluralism, protect freedom of religion or belief for all and counter intolerance and extremism.

The international community must increase efforts to work with the Indonesian government for that goal, and to support the efforts of civil society and religious leaders.

Indonesia is at a crossroads. If action is taken urgently, there is the potential to restore Indonesia’s reputation as a role model of a moderate, pluralistic, peaceful, Muslim-majority democracy in which the rights of all are protected. If, however, no such action is taken, Indonesia will descend further along the path of intolerance towards extremism, and the world will have lost an important potential force for good in the Muslim-majority world.

By Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader.

Click here to read CSW’s latest Indonesia visit report.