The 2019 Election in Indonesia: The Battle between “Jokowi Lovers” and “Jokowi Haters”

Indonesia makes history, again. On Wednesday, 17 April 2019, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and one of Asia Pacific’s vibrant democracies held the most complex and largest single-day presidential and legislative elections on earth, involving more than 190 million voters at home and abroad. This year is the first time Indonesia held its presidential and legislative elections simultaneously.

Two candidates ran for the 2019 presidential election. The incumbent President Joko Widodo (b. 1961) picked the Muslim cleric, Islamic scholar and politician KH Ma’ruf Amin (b. 1943) as his running mate. Contesting him was retired military general Prabowo Subianto (b. 1951), who chose entrepreneur Sandiaga Uno (1969) as his running mate. This is the second time for Prabowo Subianto to challenge Joko Widodo in the presidential elections. Previously, five years ago, in 2014, Prabowo Subianto had contested Widodo in the presidential election.

Both Joko Widodo–Ma’ruf Amin and Prabowo Subianto–Sandiaga Uno tickets were endorsed by a mixture of secular, nationalist, and religious / Islamic political parties. Joko Widodo and Ma’ruf Amin were supported by the secular/nationalist parties  PDIP,  Golkar, Nasdem,  Hanura, and PSI as well as the traditionalist, religious/Islamic moderate parties PKB and PPP. Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno, on the other hand, were backed up by a coalition including but not limited to secular/nationalist parties Gerindra, Demokrat, Berkarya, and Garuda as well as the Islamist PKS and PAN, a coalition of religious and non-religious groups.

Although the General Election Commission (KPU = Komisi Pemilihan Umum) will give an official announcement on the elections’ results in May 22nd, a dozen of reputable survey institutions (such as SMRC, Indo Barometer, Poltracking Indonesia, Cyrus Network, LSI, Charta Politika, Indikator Politik Indonesia, CSIS, and Litbang Kompas) have forecasted the victory of the incumbent President Joko Widodo with more than 10 percent difference, bases on quick count outcomes they have conducted. Quick Count (QC) or Parallel Vote Tabulations (PVTs) is a survey method adopted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) to help citizens monitor their election processes, and its results are usually congruent with those of the real count.

While Joko Widodo seem to trail ahead according to quick count results, his contender Prabowo Subianto, the former Army general,, claimed his victory. In doing so, he rejected survey organizations’ quick count outcomes and accused them of manipulating pollsters and the elections data, and of being partisan supporters of the incumbent Widodo – he had done this in the 2014 presidential election as well. After receiving an estimated of 55 percent of the vote, based on quick counts results of the multiple credible survey institutions, Joko Widodo announced his re-election as an Indonesian President. Not admitting defeat,  Prabowo also claimed he won 62 percent of the vote based on his campaign’s own counts and held mass prayers with his loyal supporters in celebration of his claim to victory.

Public Enthusiasm about the Elections

The turnout rate for the elections stand over 80 percent – higher than the participation rate for the 2014 presidential election, which was 69 percent. These figures demonstrate extraordinary eagerness of Indonesian voters to participate in the democratic process since the collapse of Suharto’s authoritarian rule in 1998 and since the archipelagic country held its first direct presidential elections in 2004.

The 2019 elections showcase a considerable reduction in absenteeism (better known as “Golongan Putih”– “the White Group”– or “Golput” for short) in Indonesian elections over the past decade. For instance, in the 2004 election, 25 percent of voters went Golput and the number went up to 28 percent in the 2009 election.

What made Indonesians so enthusiastic about this year’s elections, then? One of the most important driving factors contributing to the electorate’s unprecedented enthusiasm is that the majority of Indonesians see the elections as a critical moment to change or defend the country’s governmental regime, foundational state ideology (known as Pancasila), and its constitution (known as UUD 1945).

Those who are eager to see a change in these three areas are labeled “Jokowi haters”, while those who want to defend them are labeled “Jokowi lovers.” Jokowi is a nickname for President Joko Widodo. It is imperative to note that both “Jokowi lovers” and “Jokowi haters” consist of both secular and religious groups, religious conservatives and moderates, and Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

It is hence misleading to say that the 2019 elections symbolized a fight between conservative or religious Muslims and progressive or secular Muslims. This is because supporters of both candidates were composed of a mixed set of ideologically non-homogenous actors and not unified blocs. The 2019 elections, then, were indeed a battle between “Jokowi lovers” versus “Jokowi haters.” Why so?

“Jokowi Lovers” versus “Jokowi Haters”

As stated earlier, “Jokowi lovers” are a group of Indonesian people who want to defend Joko Widodo as the Indonesian President, while “Jokowi haters” are those who are keen to replace his presidency. Who make up these two camps?

Jokowi lovers are mainly made up of the following groups.

  • The majority of Jokowi lovers are Indonesians who are satisfied with his political performance, individual credibility, social commitment, cultural reforms, economic growth, and national development during 2014–19 presidency. It is true that since Joko Widodo took power in 2014, he was able to elevate the reputation of Indonesia globally in many fields. The World Bank and the Asialink Business, for instance, have reported that Indonesia has registered impressive economic growth and that it is Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the 16thlargest in the world, since overcoming the Asian financial crisis of the mid-1990s. The country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has also steadily and significantly risen. An emerging middle-income country, Indonesia is now the world’s 10thlargest economy in terms of purchasing power parity, a member of the prestigious G-20, and has made  impressive gains in poverty reduction. Joko Widodo has also been credited for being able to maintain relative socio-political stability, despite the extant high tension among diverse ethnoreligious groups.
  • Militant nationalists and human right activists who are afraid of Prabowo Subianto since he brings a bad  human rights record – he is accused of human rights violations during his active military service and has long been questioned on his integrity, promise and commitment for the development and advancement of Indonesia.
  • Anti-New Order factions that fear the comeback of loyalists and cronies of Suharto (1921–2008), Indonesia’s dictatorial ruler who had been in power for 32 years between 1966-1998. Prabowo Subianto was Suharto’s ex-son-in-law, and in fact, Suharto’s children and families (e.g. Tommy Suharto, Titiek Suharto, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, etc.) have been Prabowo’s backers in the presidential elections.
  • Muslim moderates and traditionalists, especially those linked with Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim social organization, who are worried about the rise of Islamist, puritan, and Salafi groups, including advocates of an Islamic state and the caliphate system, who support Prabowo’s candidacy. Nahdlatul Ulama is the strongest opponent of the Indonesian brand of the ideology of Islamism (see below more detail on Indonesia’s Islamism and Islamist movement)  and the sturdiest advocate for moderate Islam (wasatiyya).
  • Non-Muslims, either followers of established faith traditions (Christianity, Buddhism, or Hinduism) or of local beliefs, who are afraid of the growth of intolerant, anti-pluralist Islamic movements..
  • Last but not the least, villagers and ordinary people in the countryside who simply see Joko Widodo as a humble, people-loving, and hard-working president.

Who, then, are the Jokowi haters? They primarily consist of following groups.

  • Loyalists, cronies and families of Suharto and his former New Order regime that see Joko Widodo as a nightmare for their future political and economic careers. In fact, Joko Widodo, since he took power in 2014, has frozen many assets linked to Suharto’s cronies and families – a major reason why these groups fully supported Prabowo.
  • Elites, activists and members of political parties, mainly PKS, Gerindra, PAN, or Demokrat, which are not granted strategic positions in Joko Widodo administration’s ministries and other important government posts.
  • Islamist groups that accuse Joko Widodo as an “anti-Islamic ruler” and “pro-non-Muslims” due to the shutdown of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, a transnational Islamist political organization. These groups allege that Widodo has backed former Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or that he has formed alliances with Christian elites. Another accusation against Widodo is that he has bought into the police allegations that Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, founder of Islamic Defender Front, a notorious paramilitary group, is a suspect of multiple crimes, including insults  against state ideology
  • Victims of hoaxes, propaganda, and black campaigns through multiple media and tools.

Whereas Jokowi lovers see Jokowi as a common friend, Jokowi haters view him as a common enemy. Moreover, while Jokowi lovers see the elections as an opportunity to defend Jokowi’s presidency, Jokowi haters, in contrast, view the elections as an opportunity to topple Jokowi.

“However, it is vital to note that both the Jokowi-lovers camp and the Jokowi-haters camp are composed of internally diverse  groups with different motives, goals, and agendas.”

However, it is vital to note that both the Jokowi-lovers camp and the Jokowi-haters camp are composed of internally diverse  groups with different motives, goals, and agendas. Some Jokowi lovers want the incumbent to continue his major success and reform-driven outlook in various fields, especially in economic, political, and cultural sectors, others want him to protect the country’s pluralistic state ideology and constitution from Islamist groupings that are keen to change them. Others, however, have an interest in keeping Indonesia’s “unity in diversity” as enshrined in the national motto: Bhineka Tunggal Ika.

Jokowi haters also have multiple, diverse set of agendas. Some are driven by secular reasons, while others by religious motives. Some view Joko Widodo as a real peril standing against their interests, others as a road-block before their agenda to establish an Islamic state, caliphate-based governmental system, or to replace the country’s constitution with the Qur’an and Islamic law. Still, others see the incumbent as impeding their ambitions to reoccupy the government.

Islamist Factor in the Elections

Although multiple factors played a role to create public enthusiasm about the elections, the rise of Islamism in contemporary Indonesia has been one of the key driving forces for Indonesian people’s significant participation and motivation in the presidential election. Bassam Tibi, in his Islamism and Islam, defines “Islamism” a political ideology based on a reinvented version of Islamic law. Frequently used to describe the ideology of political Islam, Islamism seeks a greater role for Islam in the government, economy and society. Islamism’s central agenda is to make the state actively promote enforcement of sharia and to uphold Islamic values and principles. Practitioners (individuals or groups) of Islamism are called Islamist.

Islamist movement is not new in Indonesia. However, Islamist mobilizations became more noticeable in the country’s political stage after the late President Suharto stepped down from his thrown in 1998, following financial and economic crises that hit the country. For the Islamists, Suharto’s downfall was seen as a great impetus to express their religious, cultural, ideological, political and economic interests partly because during his reign, this group was sternly controlled by the dictatorial regime.

Widodo (left) Subianto (right)

The democratic atmosphere in the post-Suharto era provided room for the Islamists to flourish. A variety of Islamist groups have established Islamic centers, organizations, schools, and even political parties across the archipelago. They freely produce Islamic books and other publications (and distribute them to the society through their extensive networks) that are in line with their Islamic ideas and interpretations , as well as their socio-political agenda. Although these groups enjoy living in a democratic system, many if not all of them, paradoxically, use these Islamic institutions to disseminate intolerance, ethnocentrism and anti-pluralism, as well as to oppose democracy which they see as a Western-secular product.

Various Islamist groups had enjoyed democratic freedoms, particularly during the reign of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (r. 2004–14), who was dubbed the “Islamist incubator” due to the regime’s silence towards Islamist violence and intolerance as well as its coalition with PKS (The Justice and Welfare Party), one of the main supporters of the Islamist groupings, which since 2014 has been Prabowo Subianto’s main ally. It was during Yudhoyono’s rule, as Human Right Watch has noted, that Islamist and militant Salafi groups, the main actors of various intolerant and anti-pluralist agendas, had grown significantly and proliferated across the country.

“The Islamist groups started to gain momentum during Jakarta’s gubernatorial election in 2017, when they were able to mobilize ordinary Muslim masses to topple the incumbent Christian–Chinese governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), and set up their desired candidate of Arab origin, Anies Baswedan.”

The Islamist groups started to gain momentum during Jakarta’s gubernatorial election in 2017, when they were able to mobilize ordinary Muslim masses to topple the incumbent Christian–Chinese governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), and set up their desired candidate of Arab origin, Anies Baswedan. Baswedan had mainly been supported by Gerindra and PKS, the two political parties that endorsed Prabowo Subianto in the presidential elections of 2014 and 2019. As I highlighted elsewhere, Jakarta’s 2017 gubernatorial election was the worst episode in Indonesian experience with democratic elections because it was preceded by violence, tension, uproar, terror, hatred, intimidation, racism, ethnocentrism, and vicious Islamist mobilization propelled by multiple Islamist groups.

The Islamist groups wanted to “copy-paste” their success in the Jakarta election to the national level during the presidential election. It is true that the Islamist groups used the same patterns, strategies, tactics, propaganda, and dirty campaigns as they used during Jakarta’s gubernatorial election by manipulating Islamic texts, discourses, and symbols to win the heart and minds of everyday Muslims and to support their candidate: Prabowo Subianto.

Islamist and Salafi groups do not actually see Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Sandiaga Uno as their preferred candidates since the two are considered not devout Muslims or even  confident enough about their Islamic identity. But they were forced to support them due to the lack of internal candidates running for the presidential ticket. Previously, PKS nominated other internal candidates such as Salim Segaf Al-Jufri (Chair of Shura Council of PKS) and Abdul Somad (Islamic preacher) to be Prabowo’s running mate. But in the end, Prabowo chose Sandiaga Uno as his running mate since Uno had the financial resources to fund the presidential campaign. Moreover, elite members of Prabowo’s Gerindra party, both secular Muslims and non-Muslims, used Islamist groups mainly as a vehicle or “ladder” for their boss’ victory to become the RI-1 (i.e. Indonesian President).

The previous Islamist success in Jakarta (as well as in North Sumatra) created public anxiety and fear, especially among non-Islamist Muslims, moderate Muslims, nominal Muslims, traditionalist Muslims, and non-Muslims. These groups mainly perceived the emergence of Islamist factor in Indonesian politics as a “green peril,” threatening their existence, survival, and continuity. For these reasons, they were keen to block the Islamist factions’ ambitions by casting vote for Joko Widodo, which proved to be successful.

Lessons from the Indonesian Elections

There are at least three important lessons to take from the 2019 elections in Indonesia. First, the emergence of public Islam and Islamism in contemporary Indonesia in which religion (Islam) has played a great role in shaping country’s public sphere and politics. It is true that both supporters of Joko Widodo and of Prabowo Subianto used religion (Islam) to underscore their political legitimacy, developed Islamic narratives and discourses to mobilize voters behind their political ambitions.

” It is true that both supporters of Joko Widodo and of Prabowo Subianto used religion (Islam) to underscore their political legitimacy, developed Islamic narratives and discourses to mobilize voters behind their political ambitions.”

The only difference is that Prabowo’s Islamist Muslim supporters (i.e. advocates of Islamism) used Islam as a tool not only to replace Widodo but also to transform the state’s political system, ideology, and constitution which they dubbed “un-Islamic.” Islamism, which was previously “mummified” and “buried” under the New Order rule, and was practiced clandestinely by its devotees, now became publicly viable since Suharto’s collapse.

In contrast, Widodo’s non-Islamist Muslim enthusiasts (i.e. moderate, nominal, and traditional Muslims) utilized Islam as a medium to defend the incumbent whom they view as pro-Muslims and non-Muslims alike as well as the country’s political system, ideology, and constitution which they see in-line with basic Islamic principles, the Qur’an’s universal values, Sharia Law, and the example of the Prophet Muhammad.

The second lesson is that the 2019 election results seem to resemble with those of the 1955 election in which Prabowo Subianto, who was endorsed by Islamist groups, did well in areas including West Java (including Banten) and Sumatra, as did Islamist party Masjumi in 1955. Prabowo also gained significant vote in South Sulawesi, one of main bastions of Islamist groupings outside of Java. Accordingly, it is not an exaggeration that a specialist of Indonesian studies, Mark Woodward, in an online chat with me said that in the 2019 elections, divisions along ethnic lines emerged to be as important as religious polarization did in 1955. In other words, ethnoreligious identity is still a significant factor in Indonesian politics.

The third significant lesson is that non-Islamist political parties – whether secular, nationalist, or religious based – are still the dominant bloc and they will continue to be major players in the future’s Indonesian politics. There are 19 political parties that are involved in the political contest in the 2019 legislative election, of which only two parties whose main members and fans came from Islamist and Salafi groups, namely PKS and PBB. Based on the quick count outcomes of the noted survey institutions, PKS received some 8.5 percent, while PBB obtained 0.76 percent. The majority of Indonesian people still casted vote for non-Islamist parties, some of them nationalist-secular and others nationalist-religious such as PDIP, Golkar, PKB, Nasdem, Gerindra, Demokrat, PPP, Perindo, PSI, Hanura, and so forth.

As long as Islamist political parties do not take control of Indonesian politics, legislature, and government, there is still a big hope for Indonesia’s democracy, peace, civil tolerance, and civic pluralism in the years to come.

Sumanto Al Qurtuby is a cultural anthropologist and a faculty member in the Department of Global and Social Studies at the King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Saudi Arabia. Trained at Boston University, he has been awarded several visiting research and teaching positions from the University of Notre Dame and National University of Singapore, among others. Sumanto, director of Nusantara Institute on Culture and Religion, has published extensively on issues around Islam, Muslim politics and cultures, as well as ethnoreligious conflict, violence, and peacebuilding. His books include Religious Violence and Conciliation in Indonesia(Routledge, 2016) and Saudi Arabia and Indonesian Networks: Migration, Education and Islam(I.B. Tauris & Bloomsbury, 2019). He is now working on two monographs: Muslim–Christian Encounter in Indonesia: Sectarian Tension and Peaceful Coexistenceand Combating Terror: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.