Photo by the Catholic Church England and Wales from Flickr.

The vice presidential debate on 21 January garnered considerable public attention when Muhaimin Iskandar (known as ‘Cak Imin’), the running mate of Anies Baswedan, introduced the concept of taubat ekologis – meaning ecological repentance.

He borrowed the term from Laudato si’, the second encyclical – an official papal letter – issued by Pope Francis in 2015. Cak Imin stated, “Pope Francis reminds us all about our vulnerable future. We must engage in ecological repentance. Repentance starts with ethics.”

In his article published on Media Indonesia on 25 January 2024, Cak Imin  said “I deliberately quoted two credible sources from the Islamic and Catholic communities to ensure that sustainable development in Indonesia is based on ethics.”

These words of affirmation of the pope hold significant importance in contemporary Indonesian politics. Catholics – who account for only 7 percent of the population – are viewed as a relatively insignificant voter block compared to their Muslim counterparts. However, gestures to include minority communities can also win favour with Indonesia’s large community of Islamic moderates.

Competition for the Muslim vote

Islam plays a pivotal role in contemporary Indonesian politics. This is not meant to diminish the importance of other religions but Muslims do comprise the majority of the population in Indonesia – roughly 88% of the population identify as Muslim. The influence of Islamic parties, even predating independence, underscores the significance of Islam in the political landscape.

So it is unsurprising that politicians actively seek to appeal to Muslim voters in every election. Many present themselves as Islamic figures, donning traditional attire like sarongs and kopyah (brimless caps predominantly worn by Muslims) to signal their affiliation with the Muslim community. Personal endorsements from kyai – leaders of Islamic boarding schools with extensive alumni networks – also carry substantial weight.

However, political Islam and religious campaigning has at times plunged the country into chaos. Indonesia witnessed extreme polarisation during the 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial election. Anies Baswedan, who ultimately won the governorship, sought to secure Muslim votes by capitalising on the mobilisation of the Islamist ‘212 movement’. This saw another candidate, Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, prosecuted and imprisoned for blasphemy against the Quran during the election campaign .

In a speech as Governor of Jakarta on 16 October 16 2017, Anies also provocatively used the term “pribumi” – meaning indigenous people – a divisive term in the Indonesian context because of its ability to marginalise the Chinese minority.

These past controversies mean many now associate Anies with religious and racial intolerance, which has made it hard for him to win broad-based support throughout the diverse archipelago.

A new inclusive Anies

These issues all make Cak Imin’s gesture to affirm the Catholic position of ‘ecological repentance’ noteworthy. At face value, it can be seen as an attempt to build broad-based support for an environmental campaign platform. However, in light of Anies’ past controversy, it looks more like a rebranding of the Anis-Muhaimin team by emphasising inclusivity and a more pro-minority stance – a striking departure from Anies’ previous campaigns.

This new inclusive brand looks increasingly deliberate. In late 2023, Anies visited Santo Thomas Orphanage at Christmas  to show respect to the Christian community. Furthermore, during an interview in January, Anies offered his perspective on identity politics, stating that equality and the public interest would be his main governing strategies should he be elected.

Cak Imin is a critical figure in this rebrand of Anies because he is affiliated with the National Awakening Party (PKB) and deeply connected with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation.

NU is recognised by many as an organisation committed to religious diversity and safeguarding minority rights. Although not all its members share these views, it piggybacks off the legacy of Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, Indonesia’s popular fourth president, who advocated religious tolerance and actively supported minority causes. It is common to see NU groups acting as security forces during Christian Christmas celebrations and actions such as this have helped NU and Christian groups form emotional bonds.

Inclusive for now

In today’s political contest, the Anies-Muhaimin team are eager to present a new inclusive image, seemingly in an attempt to overshadow Anies’ past transgressions.

Certainly, Cak Imin’s recent comments created quite a buzz on X (formerly Twitter). The new approach has been well received by some Catholics who expressed their joy on X when Muhaimin quoted the pope’s term ‘ecological repentance.’

However, there is still lasting trauma in some Christian and Chinese communities, which will make it difficult for many to support Anies Baswedan’s bid for the presidency.

And there is good reason for minorities and moderates to be careful about buying completely into this new brand. Many of the other political parties supporting the Anies-Muhaimin duo are conservative Islamic parties, like the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), often associated with the Islamist Jemaah Tarbiyah movement.

PKS also has a history of marginalising Christian-Chinese minorities by labelling them as “kafir” (infidels). PKS has been content to play happy families with NU throughout the election campaign but it will be in a strong position to negotiate terms if the Anies-Muhaimain team is successful.

The dynamics of the current election campaign speaks volumes about the nature of polarisation in Indonesia. It suggests political parties are no longer polarising the public because of ideology but rather because of political opportunity.

For now the political calculus seems to be rewarding inclusivity – but for how much longer?

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