Jokowi wins second term as Indonesian president, but the Islamist challenge remains

After a campaign that was called ‘one of the most divisive election campaigns in Indonesia’s history’, incumbent president Joko Widodo, or ‘Jokowi’, handily won his re-election bid against long-time rival Prabowo Subianto. On 21 May, the Indonesian election commission declared that Jokowi had won, securing 55.5% of the vote to Prabowo’s 44.5%.

Prabowo is set to file a legal challenge against the final results in the Indonesian Constitutional Court, though most observers expect that the court will not rule in his favour, paving the way for Jokowi to begin his second five-year term as president of the third largest democracy in the world in October.

Prabowo’s continuing rejection of the election result has been accompanied by repeated threats from his most militant supporters—many of whom are conservative Islamists—that they will stage ‘people power’ street protests.

Indeed, Jokowi has struggled against conservative Islamist activists since the ‘defending Islam’ rallies which succeeded in removing his former ally Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (popularly known as ‘Ahok’) from the Jakarta governorship in April 2017.

These activists—now known collectively as Alumni 212—aligned themselves with Prabowo during his bid for the presidency. During the long campaign, they often turned to social media to accuse Jokowi of being a closeted communist, ethnic Chinese or Christian, in order to dissuade devout Muslims from voting for him.

In response to the challenges from the Islamists, Jokowi is relying on statutes such as the law on religious blasphemy, the law on electronic information and transactions, and an emergency decree on civil society organisations as the legal basis to resist the Islamist activists who are challenging him.

Using these laws, authorities are cracking down on the Islamist activists. One of the initiators of pro-Prabowo protests, Eggi Sudjana, has been charged by the Indonesian police, while others, including Islamist preacher Bachtiar Nashir, have been summoned for questioning. Eggi is facing multiple charges of treason and it’s been revealed that Bachtiar fled Indonesia for Saudi Arabia.

These arrests were the latest in a series of disciplinary and punitive actions taken by the Jokowi administration against his critics—who mainly come from the ranks of Alumni 212 activists—but also against others who have aligned themselves with Prabowo, such as the #2019GantiPresiden  (‘#2019ChangePresident’) movement, which stood in opposition to Jokowi and his policies prior to the election.

In May 2017, police charged the leader of the Defending Islam movement, Habib Rizieq Shihab, with online sex solicitation. This forced him into self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia. The next month, the Jokowi administration banned Hizb ut-Tahrir Indonesia, an Islamist group that advocated for Indonesia to become part of a global Islamic caliphate. Some of Jokowi’s other critics, like singer Ahmad Dhani and academic Rocky Gerung, were arrested and convicted under the same religious blasphemy law that was used to convict Ahok.

These cases have led observers to begin accusing Jokowi of turning to authoritarian methods to deal with the challenges against his rule from hardline Islamists and others. Political scientist Marcus Mietzner has called such methods ‘fighting illiberalism with illberalism’ and questioned whether Indonesia’s democracy, which is widely considered one of the most durable in Southeast Asia, is now entering a stage of ‘deconsolidation’.

Islamists—particularly those who aligned themselves with Alumni 212—have emerged as the strongest opposition force against Jokowi. While he rightly sees them as a threat against his rule, so far Jokowi has dealt with them using coercive measures. This raises concerns that he might end up endangering the Indonesian democracy over the long run.

Instead of using coercion, Jokowi might consider alternative measures, such as providing education and economic opportunities for low-income Muslims (particularly young millennials). Land redistribution, as proposed by Jokowi’s running mate and now vice president–elect Ma’ruf Amin, might be another strategy that can be pursued by the administration during Jokowi’s second term to provide more opportunities for low-income Muslims. Ma’ruf has also proposed that the state promote entrepreneurship utilising Islamic economic principles ranging from Islamic banking to cooperatives and tourism as another means to reduce poverty.

If Jokowi is successful in promoting economic opportunities among low-income Muslims, he will also be able to neutralise many of the grievances of his Islamist critics. In doing so, he’ll also be able to avoid repressive measures that are only going to inspire further complaints and protests from groups like Alumni 212.