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Jakarta Post

Ma’ruf Amin: Elderly cleric or canny political operator? We’ll see Sunday

  • Karina M. Tehusijarana

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sun, March 17, 2019   /   11:26 am
Ma’ruf Amin: Elderly cleric or canny political operator? We’ll see Sunday Vice presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno kisses VP candidate Ma'ruf Amin's hand to show respect prior to the first presidential debate in Jakarta recently. The two will face each other in the third presidential debate on Sunday. (Courtesy of Instagram /Sandiaga Uno)

Senior Muslim cleric and non-active Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) chairman Ma’ruf Amin is set to face off with former Jakarta deputy governor Sandiaga Uno on Sunday in the first and only vice presidential candidate debate.

Ma'ruf's performance in the first debate, when he was paired with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, was less than inspiring, as he spoke the least of the four debaters.

A moment when he refrained from adding to a response from Jokowi, saying only "I have nothing to add", went viral, drawing some ridicule but also some sympathy.

Polls have also shown that Ma’ruf has not had any significant effect on Jokowi’s electability, which has hovered around 53 to 58 percent since the beginning of 2018, prior to the announcement of Ma’ruf as his running mate.

Jokowi-Ma’ruf campaign officials defended Ma'ruf's performance saying that he was purposely cast in a "supporting role" to let Jokowi take the spotlight.

"This is a presidential election, so we need to focus on the true candidate," Jokowi campaign team chairman Erick Thohir said recently, adding that Ma'ruf contributed an answer to a question on terrorism because he had experience dealing with the issue as the head of the MUI.

Jokowi campaign political communications director Usman Kansong said that being on stage alone would give Ma’ruf more freedom to communicate his ideas.

“In the first debate, Pak Ma’ruf was positioned as the ‘second person’,” Usman told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday. “In the upcoming debate, he will not have to share the screen time and will be able to share his expertise.”

Usman also said he was not worried about unfavorable comparisons between Ma’ruf, who celebrated his 76th birthday on Monday, and Sandiaga’s youthful image.

“In fact, we want to [highlight] his persona as a senior person, a cleric and a kiai [teacher],” he said. “We want him to keep wearing his sarung, not change into jeans.”

He added that he was confident Ma’ruf would show on Sunday that he was being underestimated.

Pak Jokowi was underestimated in 2014, people thought he would perform badly in the debates compared to Prabowo. But in the end, he did well and won the election,” he said. “Pak Ma’ruf will do the same.”

Usman also denied that Ma’ruf had no effect on Jokowi’s electability.

“Maybe other pollsters have not been able to capture it, but our internal polling shows that Pak Ma’ruf has helped us gain significant ground in Banten and West Java, which Pak Jokowi lost in 2014,” he said.

The Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga campaign, meanwhile, has sought to counter the perception that Ma’ruf is just a kindly old cleric.

“The truth is Pak Ma’ruf has been in politics since the 70s,” Prabowo campaign spokesperson Andre Rosiade said in a discussion about the debate in Central Jakarta on Thursday.

Pak Ma’ruf Amin will come to the debate not as a cleric, but as a politician who has served in Jakarta’s Regional Legislative Council (DPRD) and the House of Representatives. He is a master politician.”

Andre pointed to the fact that Ma’ruf got the nod as Jokowi’s running mate ahead of former Constitutional Court chief justice Mahfud MD, who was considered a lock for the position, as further proof of the cleric’s political savvy.

Analysts have said the debate has the potential to be exciting, given that the two candidates will face off for the first time, unlike Jokowi and Prabowo, who had gone head-to-head before in 2014.

“The two vice presidential candidates are both novices at this level, so this creates more enthusiasm among voters,” Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) political analyst Siti Zuhro said on Thursday. “The juxtaposition between the two candidates also makes it interesting.”

“I think that while Ma’ruf didn’t speak up much, his answer in the first debate was very good and logical,” Paramadina University political communications expert Hendri Satrio told the Post. “If Ma’ruf can pull off a surprise, it might have a large impact on Jokowi’s electability. He should not be underestimated.”