The presidential election: communism vs caliphate?

Former State Intelligence Agency (BIN) head Hendropriyono recently suggested that Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno would seek to change the course of the Indonesian state if elected. Photo by Mohamad Hamzah for Antara.

 

The Indonesian presidential election entered a new and bizarre chapter in recent weeks, with much of the contest reduced to an ideological battle between supporters of communism and supporters of a caliphate, or so the election rhetoric would have us believe.

 

On one side we have candidate pair 01 (President Joko Widodo and Ma’ruf Amin), who rival supporters claim would allow the return of the defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), dissolved by Soeharto in 1966. On the other, candidate pair 02 (Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno) have accepted the support of former members of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), disbanded in 2017 by Jokowi because the group violated the state ideology and sought to establish a caliphate.

 

Former State Intellegence Agency (BIN) chief Hendropriyono contributed to the framing of the presidential race as a battle between opposing ideologies when he said on 28 March that the election was a choice between the state ideology, Pancasila, and a caliphate. He implied that Jokowi and Ma’ruf would maintain Pancasila as the national ideology, as a basis for religious pluralism, while Prabowo and Sandiaga could change the course of the Indonesian state and seek to turn it into a caliphate.

 

Hendropriyono’s statement was then of course amplified by pro-Jokowi “buzzers” (paid social media influencers) and supporters online, using the hashtag #PancasilavsKhilafah (“Pancasila versus the Caliphate”), which quickly became a trending topic on Twitter. Prabowo supporters and buzzers then responded with the hashtag #PKIvsPancasila.

 

Prabowo supporters have long used allegations of communism to attack Jokowi. During the 2014 elections, for example, the tabloid “Obor Rakyat” questioned Jokowi’s family heritage, and even whether Jokowi’s mother was his real mother. The issue has been reignited by pro-Prabowo buzzers in 2019, who have tried to create the impression that Jokowi has been concealing his true identity over the past five years. This association between Jokowi and communism has been compounded by the fact that children of PKI members have joined the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Jokowi’s main basis of political party support.

 

Senior Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) figure Ma’ruf Amin was selected as Jokowi’s running mate in part to counter the narrative pushed by Jokowi’s opponents since the 2017 Jakarta election that Jokowi is anti-Islamic and pro-communist. Predictably, when the Jokowi-Ma’ruf ticket has been attacked, its online supporters have tried to conflate the 01 ticket with NU, and have shared the hashtag #02vsNU. The hashtag #02vsNU gives the impression that Prabowo supporters’ attacks on Jokowi and Ma’ruf are effectively attacks on NU.

 

It is significant that Jokowi’s supporters have attempted to frame the attacks in this way. NU is the largest Islamic social organisation in Indonesia, with an estimated 80 million members. In the eyes of many Indonesians, NU was on the frontline of efforts to defend the Indonesian state from the PKI in 1966, and again from HTI in 2017. By using this hashtag, Jokowi’s supporters have attempted to paint the presidential election as a competition between supporters of ticket 02 and NU.

 

But this is far too simplistic a reading of political dynamics in Indonesia.

 

The 2019 presidential election is clearly not about a contest between supporters of the 02 ticket and NU. In fact, there are many NU figures who have openly expressed support for Prabowo and Sandiaga. NU religious leaders like Muhammad Najih Maimoen (Gus Najih), Choirul Anam (Cak Anam) and Abu Bakar Assegaf, to name a few, have all said that they will back Prabowo and Sandiaga. It is true that most NU religious leaders support the 01 ticket, but it is too simplistic to say all of NU is on the same side.

 

Neither is the 2019 presidential election an ideological battle between the Pancasila on one side and a caliphate on the other. In the fourth presidential debate on 30 March, Prabowo firmly stated that there was no way that he would seek to replace the Pancasila with a caliphate. As a former military general who had sworn an oath to be faithful to the Pancasila, Prabowo even challenged his accusers, saying “I was born from the womb of a Christian woman. It makes no sense that I would back a caliphate.”

 

The truth of the matter is that Prabowo and HTI have relied on each other because they share a common enemy. Prabowo rejects the idea of a caliphate but is happy to receive support from HTI. He does so because he wants to give the impression that he defends persecuted religious leaders and is defending Islam. He needs to maintain his image as the chosen presidential candidate of the religious leaders, or “presiden pilihan ulama”.

 

On the other hand, many sympathisers of the now banned HTI are not likely to offer their votes to Prabowo. This is because HTI sympathisers reject democracy and elections as incompatible with Islam. Although they hate Jokowi for disbanding HTI, they will abstain from voting, just as they have in previous elections. But by offering public support to Prabowo, HTI sympathisers hope that if he wins, Prabowo will restore HTI’s right to operate, or at least allow former HTI members to continue to promote the idea of a caliphate, as they were permitted to do under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

 

In other words, the 2019 presidential election is not a competition between communism and a caliphate at all. Jokowi has rejected accusations that he is a PKI member. Prabowo has rejected accusations that he supports the establishment of a caliphate. But these claims have nonetheless polarised many Indonesians. Some are now concerned that a significant disturbance at the time of, or after, the vote could put the election results in doubt.

 

HTI sympathisers might say they are backing Prabowo but they also want the presidential election to fail. If the presidential election is disrupted by major protests or rioting, the real winner of the election will be HTI. Supporters of HTI want to show that democracy is not suitable for Indonesia. HTI will then be at the ready to offer the caliphate as the solution to the failure of democracy in Indonesia.

 

There now appears significant concern about public disorder after the election. Prabowo backer and former head of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) Amien Rais has said that if the 02 ticket loses, Prabowo’s supporters will not challenge the result in the Constitutional Court, but use direct “people power”. After Prabowo’s failed challenge to the election result at the Constitutional Court in 2014, Rais clearly sees no point in pursuing the legal avenue.

 

This is particularly dangerous because mass mobilisation in this way has the potential to result in violence. Apparently Rais now believes differences are better solved through the force of the masses rather than through the democratic channels he helped introduce after Soeharto’s fall in 1998.

 

The presidential election is a festival of democracy. All citizens should be free to use their democratic rights comfortably and safely – no matter their differences. And after the vote, all sides should be able to sing this line of the national anthem and mean it: “Come, let us all exclaim, Indonesia is ONE” (Marilah kita berseru: Indonesia berSATU). Let’s see if they do!