Endorsements from popular Indonesian Islamic preachers could boost chances for presidential candidates, but it is unclear if that support could sway voters in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation, analysts said ahead of Wednesday’s general election.
Incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto have both tried to woo the support of conservative Islamic leaders.
Prabowo, for his part, has received a flurry of endorsements in the past few days from ultra-conservative preachers such as Abdul Somad and Adi Hidayat, whose sermons on YouTube are popular among young Muslims.
“At least the endorsements for Prabowo will consolidate voters with the same affiliation. The question is: Are voters who support Jokowi switching to Prabowo? Is the influence significant? This is interesting to analyze,” said Muslimin, a researcher at Charta Politica, a private pollster.
Prabowo, a 67-year-old former army general known for nationalist rhetoric, has courted the backing of conservative Muslim groups that seek a greater role of Islam in government, including the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI). But he has denied accusations of wanting to turn the secular nation into a caliphate.
FPI is led by cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, who shot to political prominence after he helped lead a campaign in 2016 and 2017 to oust then-Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian of Chinese descent, over allegations that he had insulted the Koran in off-the-cuff remarks.
The events leading to Ahok’s jailing raised concerns about growing religious intolerance in Indonesia, which has long been considered moderate in its practice of Islam. The former governor finished serving his sentence in January.
Ikrama Masloman, a researcher at the Jakarta-based pollster Indonesian Survey Circle, said the clerics’ endorsements of Prabowo was unlikely to significantly boost his election chances.
“It was a little too late. If it had been given long ago, the impact would have been greater,” he told BenarNews.
Prabowo’s campaign spokesman, Dahnil Anzar Simanjuntak, welcomed public expression of support from Abdul and Adi, saying they represented the voices of the people.
“They both command huge influence. There was a survey that suggested that if both were neutral, Jokowi would win. With Abdul Somad supporting Prabowo, Jokowi is certain to lose,” he said.
Jokowi’s last-minute pilgrimage to Mecca
Abdul Kadir Karding, a deputy chairperson of the Jokowi campaign, however, said the preachers’ support for Prabowo would only rally moderate Muslim groups around the incumbent president.
“There’s actually a silver lining, that NU and other moderate Islamic groups will unite,” he told reporters, noting that Jokowi had received backing from revered NU clerics, such as Muhammad Lutfi and Maimoen Zubair.
Jokowi, 57, picked Ma’ruf Amin, a senior cleric known for anti-gay views, as his vice-presidential running mate apparently to fend off criticism that he was not sufficiently pious.
In an apparent attempt to dispel unfounded accusations that he was not a good Muslim, Jokowi and his family also went to Saudi Arabia over the weekend on a pilgrimage known as umrah.
Photographs circulated by the Jokowi campaign showed him entering the Kaaba, a black cube-shaped building at the center of Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca, and kissing the revered Black Stone.
He also met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, officials said.
“The crown prince appreciated Indonesia’s economic and political stability and said that Indonesia is lucky to have a progressive leader,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said.
More than 190 million people are eligible to vote on Wednesday in a re-match of the 2014 presidential election, in which Jokowi defeated Prabowo by almost six percentage points.
Islamic parties unlikely to benefit
Even though religious fervor has been strong during campaigning, Islamic parties are not expected to perform better than the previous elections, Ikrama said.
“Even though the issue of religion is prominent in the presidential election, it does not necessarily translate to votes for Islamic parties. Nationalist parties that are fielding their own presidential candidates will win the most votes,” he said.
“It’s because Islamic parties have no popular figures,” he said.
He was referring to Jokowi’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and Prabowo’s Gerindra Party.
Several recent polls suggest that nationalist parties will dominate the 575-strong House of Representatives (DPR), with the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) expected to win the most votes in the April 17 election.
Indonesia’s main faith-based party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), is not expected to repeat its 2014 performance, when it won 6.8 percent of the votes, while the more moderate United Development Party (PPP) and National Mandate Party (PAN) may not secure enough votes to pass the 4-percent threshold required to hold a seat in parliament, recent polls suggest.
PPP and PAN won 6.5 and 7.6 percent of the votes in the 2014 parliamentary elections, respectively.
The National Awakening Party (PKB), a member of the ruling coalition backing Jokowi’s bid for re-election, is the only Islamic party expected to secure its old parliamentary seats.
Concerns that the polarization among Muslims could widen communal divisions after the election are unfounded, Muslimin of the Charta Politica pollster told BenarNews.
“Sentiments may be running high, but I don't think it will have a long-lasting effect,” he said. “After the election, I think things will go back to normal.”