Indonesia’s 2024 election campaign has been relatively free from polarizing religious rhetoric

Tria Dianti and Arie Firdaus
Indonesia’s 2024 election campaign has been relatively free from polarizing religious rhetoric One of Indonesia’s three presidential candidates, Ganjar Pranowo (top), interacts with a supporter during a campaign rally at the Gelora Delta Sidoarjo stadium in Sidoarjo regency, East Java, Indonesia, Jan. 21, 2024.
[Juni Kriswanto/AFP]

Indonesia’s Ganjar Pranowo readily accepts the hospitality of his constituents, Anies Baswedan charms with his eloquence in town halls across the archipelago, and Prabowo Subianto highlights his achievements as the nation’s defense minister.

It may be hard to believe the three men are presidential candidates in this month’s election, because their campaigns lack the invective, mudslinging and sectarian rhetoric that marked the last two contests, in 2014 and 2019.

Indonesia appears to be moving past the politics of fear and division, when candidates and voters clashed over religious and ethnic identities, analysts said.

One reason for the change is the fragmentation and weakening of the conservative Islamic groups that once backed Prabowo, who was incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s challenger in the 2014 and 2019 presidential contests, analysts and voters said.

Another reason is public fatigue over the polarization that previous campaigns caused in society.

A political analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said that Indonesians appear to have learned from the negative consequences of the previous elections, which harmed social unity and trust.

“People have realized that identity-based campaigning is no longer relevant or electorally beneficial,” analyst Arya Fernandes told BenarNews. “So now they are looking for more creative ways to campaign.”

During the previous two elections, some of Jokowi’s supporters accused Prabowo of being backed by extremist groups with ties to terrorism. And some of Prabowo’s supporters claimed Jokowi was ethnically Chinese and an anti-Muslim communist.

Indonesian presidential candidate and Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto breaks into dance in front of his supporters at a campaign event in Majalengka City, West Java, in a photograph the minister posted on his Instagram account on Jan. 21, 2024. [Via Instagram/Prabowo]

This year, Indonesians have said they welcomed the more moderate and inclusive tone of the campaign leading up to the Feb. 14 vote.

Ravita Nityasari, 36. a housewife in Jakarta, said the previous presidential elections were “too extreme and emotionally draining.

“Back then, friends and relatives became enemies. There were harsh words on social media. But now it’s not like that. At least it doesn’t break families apart,” she said.

Candidates Anies, Ganjar and Prabowo are trying to appeal to a wider and more diverse audience.

Prabowo has focused on letting the electorate know how he has improved the country’s defense and security sectors as defense minister. He also highlighted his commitment to protecting the sovereignty and dignity of Indonesia.

The former military strongman has this time opted for some catchy campaigning, including dancing, which has become sort of his trademark. He also uses cartoons that depict him as a chubby and happy character. And, of course, cat photos he posts on social media are always a hit.

Anies, a former governor of Jakarta who is known for his charisma and eloquence, has emphasized his governing skills by citing his record managing the metropolis of more than 10 million people innovatively.

He has preferred to communicate his message via more intimate town hall meetings with voters, rather than up on stage yelling into a mike to a crowd of thousands in a jamboree-like atmosphere.

And Ganjar, who was a Central Java governor for two terms, has gone all out to show he’s a man of the people.  He connects with ordinary folk by sleeping at their homes, and cracks jokes and posts puns on social media.

Listya Pratiwi, 37, a private employee, said the campaign methods were “more innovative and engaging,” compared to previous years when politicians relied on popular music concerts to attract voters.

“Now they are more focused on dialogues with the people. I think this is something fresh,” she said.

‘Three-way race eases political divide’ 

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s conservative Islamic groups are less united than they were in 2019 and 2014, because the government has banned some of them and as they have shifted loyalties to different parties, analysts said.

Ujang Komarudin of Al Azhar Indonesia University said these groups have different interests.

“They were united in [the] 2017 [Jakarta gubernatorial election], united in 2019 with Prabowo, but now they are divided,” he told BenarNews.

“The conservative groups have been suppressed by the government, so they aren’t as strong as before and therefore are losing their popularity and attractiveness.”

The 2017 election for Jakarta’s governor was one of the most divisive and contentious in Indonesia’s history.

Hard-line Islamic groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to demanded the arrest of then Jakarta Gov. Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok,” The  groups accused him of blasphemy and wanted to have him removed from office.

A month after losing the election, Ahok was found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison.

Meanwhile, the government banned HTI and FPI in 2017 and 2020, respectively, accusing their members of undermining the country’s pluralistic and democratic values.  

Yon Machmudi, a University of Indonesia expert on Middle East and Islamic studies, said the three-way race has eased the political divide.

“In 2019, it was a head-to-head between two pairs, so there was a strong polarization,” he told BenarNews.

Indonesian presidential candidate Anies Baswedan (center) poses for pictures with students after a public dialogue during his campaign rally at Bina Bangsa University in Serang, Banten province, Indonesia, Dec. 21, 20230. [Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP]

A conservative group called 212, which staged the massive protest against Ahok,  is now split, with some supporting Prabowo and some Anies.

“On the other hand, the Islamic parties also realize that identity politics will not help them, as the candidates seek broader support nationally,” Yon said.

Mardani Ali Sera, spokesman for Anies’ campaign, said the candidate’s main goal is justice and prosperity for all.

“All religions, social groups and strains of society deserve attention, protection and empowerment,” he told BenarNews.

Chicco Hakim, spokesman for Ganjar’s campaign, said it was a breath of fresh air that this year’s election focused more on ideas.

“Identity politics will always exist in political contests, because people tend to support those who share their identity, similarity, belief. But now the candidates’ platforms are more important,” he told BenarNews.

Viva Yoga, spokesman for Prabowo’s campaign, agreed.

“People know that identity politics is harmful, and young people don’t fall for it, so it’s not dominant,” he told BenarNews.

“It’s still there, but it’s no longer too appealing.”


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.