Religion and Race Still Key to Indonesian Presidency

By webadmin on 02:44 pm Aug 22, 2012
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Salim Osman – Straits Times

The polemic over a non-Muslim candidate ahead of next month’s Jakarta governorship face-off election has rekindled the age-old interest in having a non-Muslim as president of Muslim-majority Indonesia.

The idea itself may seem far-fetched but given the political strides made by non-Muslims either as lawmakers or as regional heads, it may not be long before one of them is bold enough to seek the top job in the land.

Such an interest had been repressed for fear of offending the Muslims and for a lack of confidence in getting Muslim backing.

It first appeared in 1988. The then military commander Benny Murdani, a Javanese Catholic, was rumored to be keen to either succeed then president Suharto or become his deputy. The idea was quashed by Suharto.

A plan in 2004 to field a pastor and a Chinese Christian businessman failed because of internal squabbling among the parties, and not the fear of a Muslim backlash.

The interest is being revived following the emergence of two challengers to Governor Fauzi Bowo in the Jakarta election.

Surakarta mayor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and his Chinese Christian running mate Basuki “Ahok” Tjahja Purnama made waves in the capital after the team won in the first round of the election last month.

None of the six pairs of challengers garnered 50 percent of the vote so the top two contenders will face off next month.

Foreign investors and local businessmen are closely watching this second round in Jakarta.

If the Jokowi-Ahok team trounce the incumbent, they could emerge as a formidable pair to take a shot at the presidency in 2014 or beyond, making it tough for presidential hopefuls who are holdovers of the Suharto era.

But how ready is Indonesia to see a non-Muslim candidate vying for the presidency or the No. 2?

Academic Mujar Ibnu Syarif, of the Islamic University of Syarif Hidayatullah in Jakarta, studied the issue in 2009 when the idea of a non-Muslim candidate contesting was swirling. He found Muslim scholars’ views divided — for and against.

The first view held that the top job must be held by a Muslim, since Indonesian society is 88 percent Muslim. This is based on verses in the Quran and the Sunnah (prophetic tradition) which command Muslims to choose only leaders who share the same faith.

In addition, an unwritten convention held that he must also be Javanese to reflect their political dominance in Indonesia.

The second view emerged in recent years, propagated by liberal scholars who see the ban on electing non-Muslims as discriminatory and against the democratic rights of the minorities.

They said earlier Quranic revelations in Mecca emphasized equal status for women and non-Muslims. This view resonates with liberal Muslims who reject all forms of discrimination, observes Mujar in a paper published in Jurnal Syariah.

Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) chief Amidhan Shaberah recently weighed in, “If the (non-Muslim) candidate has been proven to be a just person, then (Muslims) can vote for a non-Muslim. Indonesia is a democratic nation, not an Islamic nation.” He appears to be bucking the trend of conservatives who oppose non-Muslims as leaders.

His remarks could mean an endorsement of non-Muslim participation in regional elections for the post of governor, deputy governor, regent and mayor.

It may also mean that a window of opportunity is now open to a non-Muslim candidate’s entry in the presidential contest.

But despite the rhetoric, ethnic and religious representation still counts highly. The Constitution does not stipulate the race and religion of the presidential aspirant, but it is unlikely that the Muslim majority will give their votes to a non-Muslim and a non-Javanese in the race for the presidency.

Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times