Updated at 4:15 p.m. ET on 2018-08-09
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has picked a senior Muslim cleric as his running mate for next year's election, in a move seen as an attempt to bolster his religious credentials amid accusations by conservatives that he is not Islamic enough.
Jokowi said he chose Ma'ruf Amin, the 75-year-old chairman of the Indonesian Council of Muslim Scholars (MUI), because the two would make a “nationalist-religious combination."
“We complement each other,” Jokowi told reporters after announcing the decision at the end of a gathering in Jakarta attended by the leaders of parties supporting his candidacy.
The choice of Ma’ruf came as a shock as only hours earlier local media quoted former Constitutional Court chief Muhammad Mahfud as confirming he had been picked as Jokowi’s running mate.
“I have been picked and I consider it a call of history,” Mahfud was quoted as saying by the news portal Liputan6 .com.
Jokowi is seeking a second five-year term as president in the election scheduled for April 17, 2019.
His rival in what is expected to be a two-horse race is former general Prabowo Subianto, who is teaming up with Jakarta’s deputy governor, Sandiaga Uno, a wealthy businessman and fellow party stalwart.
“Gerindra, PKS and PAN have entrusted me and Sandiaga Uno to be their presidential and vice-presidential candidates,” Prabowo said at his home in southern Jakarta, referring to his party and its coalition partners.
The Democatic Party of former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is opposed to the choice of Sandiaga and said it would make a decision Friday on whether to support the pair.
“We hope that in the next two or three hours there will be an agreement between Prabowo and the Democrats,” Democratic Party deputy secretary general Andi Arief said.
“Otherwise we will go separate ways,” he said.
It is widely believed that the Democrats wanted Prabowo to pick Yudhoyono’s son, U.S.-educated retired army major Agus Harimurti, as his running mate.
Helped jail Ahok
Jokowi narrowly defeated Prabowo in a bitterly divided presidential election in 2014.
“It's clear the president wants to play safe and lock in the conservative Muslim vote but at the same time he is disappointing a lot of people who were looking for someone a little more inspiring,” Keith Loveard, senior analyst at Jakarta-based Concord Consulting, told BenarNews.
“Ma'ruf is the religious equivalent of a machine politician,” he added.
Ma’ruf was instrumental in the jailing last year of former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, on charges of blaphemy.
Conservative Muslim groups held large protests against Ahok in 2016 and 2017 in the run-up to a gubernatorial election in which he was a front-runner, after an edited video made it appear like he said that the Quran deceived people.
An MUI fatwa declaring Ahok’s remarks blasphemous bolstered Muslim opposition against him and paved the way for his prosecution.
Ahok lost the Jakarta gubernatorial election to a Muslim candidate, Anies Baswedan, and was later sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy.
“There is a good chance that a lot of progressives will prefer to abstain. Generally there is a lot of gloom that the choice has come to this,” Loveard said.
Arya Fernandes, a researcher at the Jakarta-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Jokowi had to settle with Ma’ruf because some coalition politicians objected to Mahfud.
“Jokowi wanted to accommodate the interests of the political parties supporting him,” Arya said.
“The sudden change in the vice presidential pick shows that political parties still hold sway,” he added.
The president has been criticized by conservative Muslims for issuing a decree last year paving the way for the disbanding of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, the local branch of an international Islamic organization seeking the establishment of a caliphate through peaceful means.
Some Muslim conservatives have also accused his government of being hostile to Islamic clerics after police last year sought to question Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the Islamic Defenders’ Front, a vigilante group, on charges of pornography after screenshots of alleged sex chats between him and a female supporter circulated on social media.
Shihab was among the leaders of Muslim groups behind the blasphemy campaign against Ahok, an ally of Jokowi.
“Jokowi is worried that the issue of religion would be used to attack him,” Arya said.
“But I suspect identity politics won’t sell in 2019 because in 2014 he won in spite of it,” he said.