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August 31, 2018 11:09 EDT

As Indonesians brace themselves for another election in 2019, they must stop politicizing religion and identity.

In Southeast Asia, Indonesia is set to hold its presidential election in April 2019. Citizens will choose a candidate to lead the nation until 2024, and the excitement can be felt among the people.

The candidates include incumbent President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and the former lieutenant general of the armed forces, Prabowo Subianto. Jokowi has picked Indonesian cleric Ma’aruf Amin as his running mate. Amin previously served as chairman of the Indonesian Islamic Scholars Council and advisory leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization. Meanwhile, Subianto has chosen Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno, the current vice-governor of Jakarta and a businessman.

Political Identity in Indonesia

Since the candidates were announced, debates over the election have been the talk of the day. These include subjects such as the background of the Jokowi and Prabowo, their policies and the potential implications for Indonesia. One of the most important subjects is the issue of religion and identity that was prevalent in the 2014 presidential election.

In that election, the battle between Jokowi and Prabowo was heated. Supporters of both candidates tried to compete with each other by using religion and identity to sway voters. Tribes, different religious groups and ethnic minorities were used as tools to obtain support. For instance, in a Muslim-majority country like Indonesia, the opposition discredited Jokowi as being anti-Islam and anti-religion by drawing upon his selection of an ethnic Chinese Christian, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, when he ran for the Jakarta governorship in 2012. Identity politics laden with slander continued when Jokowi was elected president in 2014.

In fact, up until last year’s Jakarta gubernatorial election, issues concerning identity, religion and human rights were still common. The overtones of Chinese vs. Pribumi (native Indonesians) or Muslim vs. non-Muslim were apparent among those who criticized the Jokowi administration. It was claimed that the president was pro-Chinese and anti-Islam by backing Purnama, who was convicted in a blasphemy case after stating that Muslims had been deluded by a verse in the Quran that states they should not elect non-Muslims leaders. The same issue was was raised with Jokowi’s ban on Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an Islamic political group, and his enforcement of regulations on nongovernmental organizations.

Meanwhile, those on the other side of the political spectrum are often labeled as Muslim extremists or anti-Chinese. For example, Purnama’s opponent in the Jakarta gubernatorial election, Anies Baswedan, who is now the governor of the capital city, was categorized as a hardline Muslim.

There is concern among Indonesians that the 2019 election will see a repeat of this phenomenon. This is especially because the same political figures are running again. Alternative candidates are not appearing because they are constrained by rules that require a threshold of 20% of the People’s Representative Council (DPR) seats to run for the presidential election.

Bonie Hargens, an Indonesian political observer, believes the issue of political identity will remain as a tool for candidates to defeat one another. According to Bonie’s predictions, religious groups will continue to search for spaces in the forthcoming election. In fact, Habib Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islamic Defender Front (FPI), has spoken of his desire to change the country’s philosophy (or pancasila) to Islamic law. According to a survey by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, the politicization of religion and identity is likely to remain in Indonesia.

Focus on Political Ability

In the midst of these developments, what Indonesians must understand is the election should not be limited to mere political identities of the candidates. The main concern that must be considered by voters is which candidate is the right one to solve the most crucial problems facing the country.

Ahmad Mustofa Bisri, an Indonesian Muslim scholar, tweeted, “If the point [of an election] is about supporting, then common sense is not needed and arguments can be sought.” This is the situation that Indonesians will find themselves in up until April 2019. The concern is not why some people support particular candidates — if this is based on rational arguments — but rather when voters fail to justify their choice with credible reasons. This is not healthy for Indonesia.

It is not uncommon for political differences to tarnish relationships with family, friends or colleagues, pitting people in opposing political camps. Favoring a particular candidate is normal in a democracy, and this is a right that must be respected. But the problem is when differences of opinion in politics lead to echo chambers, partisanship and political bickering among the people. In Indonesia — and indeed elsewhere, including the US and Britain — this leads to citizens insulting those who have a difference of opinion. At its worst, these differences can end in persecution and intimidation.

For Indonesians, it is important to remember that in choosing the next president, issues must shift from identity to the quality of policy proposals and assessing the candidates based on their meritocracy. Think of it as a job interview and the people are asking the questions.

It is time for Indonesians to become smart voters and not be consumed by incitement techniques that are deliberately used for political agendas. Both supporters of Jokowi and Prabowo should back their candidates in a way that does not divide the country. Whoever is elected president in 2019 is the leader of all Indonesians.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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