Questioning Prabowo’s alliance with Islamists

In the aftermath of Jakarta’s 2017 gubernatorial election, it seemed that Indonesia’s Islamists would be more solid than ever in their support for Prabowo Subianto’s challenge to Joko Widodo (Jokowi) in Indonesia’s 2019 elections. The “212” movement born out of the 2016–17 anti-Ahok demonstrations was institutionalised in the form of the 212 Alumni Brotherhood (or PA212) and the National Movement to Safeguard the Fatwa of Ulama (GNPF-U), both of which have overtly declared their support for Prabowo. In December 2018, PA 212 held the second reunion of the 212 rally, which was attended by Prabowo and key leaders of his coalition parties, along with hundreds of thousands of 212 “alumni” from across Indonesia. Earlier, in September, GNPF-U held an Ulama Conference (Ijtima’ Ulama) where Prabowo signed a 17-point Integrity Pact (Pakta Integritas) containing promises that GNPF-U wanted fulfilled should Prabowo win. Compared to 2014, the Prabowo–Islamist alliance appeared to be even tighter

But a closer look into recent dynamics between Prabowo and his Gerindra party and Islamist forces reveals that the Islamists are in fact less solidly behind Prabowo than is often portrayed. Jokowi has consolidated support among major mainstream Islamic parties and organisations, and has sought to split the Islamist coalition which drove the 212 movement. Prabowo has ultimately been left more dependent on a narrower base of hardliners, amid intense political competition with Jokowi for the votes of more mainstream Muslims. Moreover, Islamists may have less leverage and bargaining power on Prabowo this time than they had in 2014, something which might have implications for the policy direction a Prabowo administration would take.

Less Islamic support

One major development in Jokowi’s first term has been his consolidation of support from Indonesia’s mainstream Islamic establishment and Islamic political parties, an effort which intensified after the 2017 Jakarta election. Jokowi is relentlessly courting Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) by giving greater state resources to the organisation and access to its leaders—including its conservative ones, of which his own running-mate is a prominent example—and by approaching some pesantren (Islamic boarding school) leaders who five years ago supported Prabowo. While NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj endorsed Prabowo in 2014, he now supports Jokowi. And while in 2014 Jokowi had only one Islamic party behind him, i.e. the National Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, PKB), now he has three, with PKB being joined by the United Development Party (Partai Persatuan Pembangunan, PPP) and the Crescent Star Party (Partai Bulan Bintang, PBB). The Prosperous Justice Party (Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, PKS) and the National Mandate Party (Partai Amanat Nasional, PAN) are the only remaining Islamic parties behind Prabowo today.

Within Prabowo’s now-shrunken party coalition there have been tensions, notably between PKS and Gerindra. While PKS has been Gerindra’s most loyal ally since the 2014 election, it has experienced its own internal back-and-forth regarding its support for Prabowo. Gerindra and PKS are currently in a stand-off over the choice for Sandiaga Uno’s replacement as vice governor in Jakarta, where PKS and Gerindra dominate the local legislature. PKS has hinted that if Gerindra fails to give the post to one of PKS’s two proposed cadres, then it would not guarantee its total support for Prabowo’s presidential campaign. The tensions over the vice governorship followed earlier disappointments for PKS during negotiations over forming Prabowo’s nominating coalition, when PKS lobbied Prabowo to pick one of its leaders to become his running mate, only to be rejected.

Gerindra’s tensions with PKS over strategy and political horse-trading are mirrored in those two parties’ relationship with Islamist organisations. Gerindra/PKS and 212 leaders fell out over the 2018 regional elections, where FPI’s exiled leader Habib Rizieq Shihab wanted the three parties that supported Anies Baswedan during the 2017 Jakarta election—Gerindra, PKS, and PAN—to “copy and paste” their success in Jakarta in other regions. Rizieq wanted them to support candidates the PA 212 group recommended, in exchange for the group’s support. But this scenario didn’t always go well. In key regional elections, Gerindra and its partner parties instead nominated candidates without consideration to the 212 group’s wishes. One notable dispute over the East Java gubernatorial candidate became a national media spectacle, while in West Java, the Islamists’ preferred candidate, incumbent vice governor Deddy Mizwar, was passed over by Gerindra and PKS in favour of an obscure retired military officer.

Meanwhile, Jokowi has moved to defuse the prospect of a Jakarta-like scenario, striving to split the Islamist community by coaxing some of its key leaders into his camp. Some key 212 figures have been given positions in the Jokowi administration or on his campaign team, most notably Ali Mochtar Ngabalin (now a member of the Presidential Staff Office [KSP]), Kapitra Ampera (formerly FPI leader Rizieq Shihab’s lawyer, now a PDI-P cadre), Zainul Majdi or “Tuan Guru Bajang” (once one of GNPF-U’s preferred vice presidential nominees, now a pro-Jokowi Golkar cadre), and Yusril Ihza Mahendra (who was responsible for shifting PBB to the Jokowi camp following his appointment as lawyer for the Jokowi-Ma’ruf campaign). At least on paper, Jokowi has more Islamic support today than five years ago—while Islamists behind Prabowo still have to worry if their presidential candidate would fulfil their remaining demands.

What Islamists want

Despite those disappointments over political strategy, many Islamists still actively support Prabowo. The reason, as PA 212 chairman and FPI spokesperson Slamet Maarif told me in an interview, is simply “because he was the one willing to sign the 17-point Integrity Pact (Pakta Integritas) posed by the GNPF-U [in September 2018]”, which serves as a political contract in exchange for the 212 group’s support. (In Prabowo-Sandi’s national campaign team, Maarif serves as a deputy chairman; GNPF-U chairman Yusuf Martak is a member of its steering committee.)

Among the vague items in that list of 17 promises, three commitments worth highlighting include: safeguarding the nation from the threat of communism; using presidential powers to guarantee the safe return and rehabilitation of Habib Rizieq Shihab; and to respect and consider the opinions of ulama (Islamic scholars) in policymaking. Among those 17, which one is the most important to the FPI? “We want to have more sharia-based local bylaws (perda syariah),” Maarif said, “but our top priority is the point number 16, which is the rehabilitation of Habib Rizieq.”

When I mentioned the fact that Jokowi is not personally less pious than Prabowo, Maarif responded by listing a host of Jokowi’s wrongdoings against the Muslim community (ummah), which include the “criminalisation” of ulama, the 2017 Perppu Ormas to disband Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), and Jokowi’s party (the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, PDI-P) being responsible for paving the way for communist-leaning politicians in parliament, and opposing sharia-inspired bills while supporting regulations that may legalise adultery and homosexuality. In Maarif’s view, the appointment of Ma’ruf Amin was not due to any commitment to Islam but simply for Jokowi’s own electoral benefit. “Look at him [Ma’ruf Amin] during the first presidential debate. He’s pitiful,” he said. According to Maarif, Jokowi has played the politik belah bambu: dividing the Muslim ummah by giving much funding to an Islamic organisation [NU] while disbanding another [HTI].

Tensions over policy

Promises are one thing. But would Prabowo accommodate these Islamists’ aspirations? Clues as to how Prabowo might respond to pressure to align with them on concrete policy questions can be found in recent developments in Indonesia’s parliament (DPR). There, Gerindra and its Islamic partners aren’t always getting along on policy issues.

A recent example is the bill on the Elimination of Sexual Violence (known as RUU P-KS). Gerindra is for it, and PKS against it. The Family Love Alliance (AILA), which petitioned the Constitutional Court to criminalise homosexuality and premarital sex in 2017, has become the most staunch civil society opponent of the RUU P-KS, considering the gender equality paradigm that underpins the bill to be not in line with Islamic sharia. The Indonesian Young Ulama and Intellectual Council (MIUMI), which was a major component of the 212 movement, recently held a press conference in which it urged Muslims not to vote for legislative candidates who support the RUU P-KS—including, by implication, Gerindra. PKS itself has issued a 4-point critique against the bill. But Prabowo’s niece, the Gerindra MP Rahayu Saraswati Djojohadikusumo, said instead that Gerindra is committed to expediting the bill’s passage.

Meanwhile, a PKS-championed bill on the protection of the ulama and religious symbols has also been a point of division within the Prabowo coalition. Gerindra has criticised it on the grounds that it lacks a clear definition of who ulama are. Indeed, the 212 group has found a more reliable ally in PKS when it comes to its policy preferences, and GNPF-U’s own endorsement has accordingly gone to PKS in the upcoming legislative election.

PKS supporters in Bandung, March 2019 (Photo: Liam Gammon)

An unlikely ally

In the background to tensions between Prabowo and his Islamist allies is the fact that, at personal level, Prabowo is not the type of Muslim leader that is idealised in Islamist discourse. Prabowo is, in fact, no more Islamic than Jokowi. While the most influential young preacher in Indonesia today, Ustadz Abdul Somad (whom the 212 group proposed as Prabowo’s vice presidential candidate), once said that Muslims should vote for a leader who is capable of leading prayers (salat), Prabowo has never been seen to lead prayers publicly. Jokowi, meanwhile, has often led prayers in his visits to mosques across Indonesia. When the Aceh Preachers Association proposed holding a Qur’anic recitation test for both candidates and their running mates, Jokowi and Ma’ruf said they were ready, but Prabowo’s campaign team responded that leading the country has nothing to do with eloquence in reciting the Qur’an.

Prabowo’s public behaviour has also sometimes been not in line with what Islamists propagate. While Islamists forbid Muslims from extending Christmas greetings, Prabowo conveyed the greetings. When Ma’ruf Amin delivered Christmas greetings to Christians last December, which was denounced by Islamist groups but actually didn’t go against the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI)’s official position, Prabowo’s dancing at his family’s Christmas celebration may fall into the category prohibited by the MUI’s 1981 fatwa that declared Muslim involvement in Christmas services and celebration to be Islamically forbidden (haram). The response from Islamists would definitely be very much different if the one who did so was Jokowi.

Prabowo’s lack of piety indeed featured in GNPF-U’s meeting in the lead-up to the first Ijtima’ Ulama in July 2018 to discuss the presidential candidate the group should direct its support to. There, former PA 212’s Advisory Board member as well as the chairman of the Persaudaraan Muslimin Indonesia (Parmusi), Usama Hisyam, argued that the 212 movement originated from the struggle to defend that Qur’an against Ahok’s supposed blasphemy and so it has to propose a Muslim presidential candidate in line with criteria prescribed by the Islamic sharia, not politicians. For him, Prabowo only fits the latter. In the group’s next meeting, Prabowo attended and angrily denounced those doubting his Islamic quality. The first Ijtima’ Ulama finally declared Prabowo as the GNPF-U’s recommended presidential candidate.

With his status as the “Islamic” candidate less secure than in 2014, and his lack of personal piety has much more exposed, Prabowo’s campaign has invited people to join Friday prayers with the candidate, in response to the trending Twitter hashtag #PrabowoJumatanDiMana (#WhereisPrabowoDoingFridayPrayer). But except in the eyes of his remaining Islamist supporters, portraying Prabowo as an ideal Islamic candidate won’t work as effectively as in the previous presidential election. Perhaps acknowledging that they may no longer have an edge in selling keislaman (Islamic authenticity), the Prabowo-Sandi campaign has therefore mostly focused on economic inequity.

“We listen and we obey”—campaign poster featuring Habib Rizieq Shihab, Prabowo and Sandiaga. Jakarta, March 2019. (Photo: Liam Gammon)

A president for Islamists?

Embracing the 212 ulama has been Prabowo’s and his party’s trademark since the last Jakarta election. But as we have seen, Prabowo’s relationship with Islamic parties and organisations supporting his campaign has been increasingly marked by disagreement.

Islamists have now laid out key benchmarks for measuring Prabowo’s commitment to their causes, in the form of the 17-point Integrity Pact signed in September 2018. Should Prabowo win, his fulfilment of key commitments in that document—particularly the return of Habib Rizieq, as it demands—would send a strong signal about the influence of his Islamist allies in policymaking, especially FPI, which has come to dominate the 212 organisation after successful government attempts to peel off other 212 figures.

But it is just as probable that Prabowo and his party would simply ignore those commitments. In fact, Gerindra’s own history has been filled with political moves that FPI opposed, most recently when it chose not accept Islamists’ recommendations for regional candidates, and the vice-presidential nomination, in 2018. Prabowo was vice presidential candidate for PDI-P’s Megawati Soekarnoputri in 2009, while FPI has long opposed the idea of a female president. And the PDIP–Gerindra coalition was the one that nominated Jokowi-Ahok in Jakarta’s 2012 gubernatorial election, in opposition to PKS’ support of the then-incumbent Fauzi Bowo.

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Indeed, the focus on Prabowo as the “Islamic” candidate might also be somewhat misplaced, or at least outdated. On matters related to perda syariah and what they see as religious vices (maksiat), there is little difference between the Islamists behind Prabowo and the Islamists supporting Jokowi. PPP, for example, wants to criminalise homosexual acts, something which Ma’ruf Amin would likely agree with. PPP, as well as Ma’ruf Amin, would also be supportive of perda syariah. PPP is now pursuing a bill to ban alcoholic drinks, which Islamists would again agree with. In fact, perda syariah is not just an Islamist parties’ issue. Even secular parties in both camps have supported perda syariah in several regions to increase their local popularity, and PDI-P is no exception. Among Jokowi’s coalition parties, only the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI) has openly opposed local syariah bylaws.

2019, then, will not see a departure from the overall course of post-Reformasi elections. Political Islam remains not nearly powerful enough to take control of government on its own, doomed to being split between multiple non-Islamist candidates or political blocs seeking to use Islamic appeals to bolster their religious credibility. Prabowo’s Islamist allies may therefore be keeping the prospect of disappointment in their minds. And if a President Prabowo does choose to be ungrateful to the Islamist groups supporting him, breaks his promises as stated in GNPF-U’s Integrity Pact, or overtly opposes their aspirations? As FPI’s Maarif told me, “We [FPI] will go back to the streets again, as usual.”

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