The Jakarta Post
On Thursday, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the incumbent President, backed by nine political parties controlling 60 percent of the seats at the House of Representatives, took pragmatism to the extreme. By picking Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) chairman Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate, Jokowi went the extra mile to secure his chance for reelection, going farther to the right, way past his opponent Gerindra Party chairman Prabowo Subianto, who tapped Jakarta Deputy Governor Sandiaga Uno as his running mate. Sandiaga, prior to his current position, was known for his business acumen rather than his Muslim credentials.
By making this move, Jokowi planned for all possibilities in next year’s presidential election and leaves nothing to chance. It was widely reported that Ma’ruf was the only figure that all parties in his coalition could support and had the least amount of resistance. If one party rebelled against his choice for the vice-presidential slot and decided to join parties splintering from Prabowo’s coalition, Jokowi risked a three-way race that could complicate his bid for reelection, to mention nothing of having to deal with a protracted run-off that could create political and business uncertainty throughout 2019.
Also, other political figures like Jusuf Kalla or Mahfud MD, the latter of whom until the last minute was chalked up to be the strongest candidate, have the odds stacked against them. Kalla may be accepted by all but he was up against the constitutional term limit, while Mahfud was reported to have been rejected by Nahdhatul Ulama (NU) leaders who did not consider him to be a member of the organization.
Jokowi could not risk alienating the NU as it is the bulwark against some of the hard-line elements in the Muslim community, which in 2016 turned up in huge numbers to stop the reelection of Basuki Thahaja “Ahok” Purnama as Jakarta governor. These groups achieved their goal, if not more. Ahok lost the election and now languishes in prison for blasphemy.
It was perfectly clear that what happened in 2016 shocked Jokowi to his core. Soon after that, he made overtures to Muslim communities, visiting Islamic boarding schools and having regular meetings with Muslim leaders and respected clerics. So in picking Ma’ruf, Jokowi went for the jugular, making an unprecedented decision in the country’s history by picking who many consider to be the ulema’s ulema, a cleric not only well-versed in the scripture, but one who holds a powerful political position in his role as MUI chairman. To compare it to the United States, the equivalent would be like having Ronald Reagan pick Jerry Fallwell as his running mate.
With this decision, it is also perfectly clear that Jokowi put political stability above anything else. Ma’ruf will be the key figure to blunt any attack from the hard right and stem possible discontent from the wider Muslim population.
We are now left with the lingering question over whether this concession is too much, and whether this move could embolden conservative and hard-line elements. What if, for short-term political gain, Jokowi sacrificed the long-term prospect of democracy and diversity?