Indonesian President Jokowi trumpets nationalism amid queries about V-P pick

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (left) with vice-presidential candidate Ma'ruf Amin after submitting their nomination papers to the General Election Commission in Jakarta on Aug 10, 2018.
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (left) with vice-presidential candidate Ma'ruf Amin after submitting their nomination papers to the General Election Commission in Jakarta on Aug 10, 2018. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Indonesia's President Joko Widodo brandished his nationalist and religious credentials on Friday (Aug 10) amid reports the Islamic cleric chosen to be his running mate in next year's election was forced on him.

In a last-minute decision, Mr Joko announced on Thursday that Dr Ma'ruf Amin, who heads the board of advisers of the country's biggest mass Muslim organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), would be his vice-presidential candidate for April's poll.

The duo will be challenged by former general Prabowo Subianto and private equity tycoon and Jakarta deputy governor Sandiaga Uno.

Wearing a crisp white shirt emblazoned with the slogan "Clean. With the people. Real work.", Mr Joko told supporters he would "safeguard our national resources".

He cited as evidence policies to nationalise oil and gas assets and seize majority ownership of the huge Grasberg gold and copper mine from the US-based Freeport-McMoran.

"It is proof that we are sovereign," he said.

Dr Ma'aruf later led the crowd in prayer, asking God to "give us the capability and spirit to safeguard us against forces that try to destroy, to weaken us and our country, or break us apart". The pair left the stage as Islamic singing, rendered in Arabic, played.

 
 
 
 

The cleric was then scheduled to deliver a sermon at Friday prayers at Jakarta's biggest mosque.

Mr Prabowo and Mr Sandiaga were to have gone to the mosque before formally registering as candidates with the Election Commission but changed their plans and were due to pray at another mosque, according to the Twitter account of Mr Prabowo's Gerindra party.

Dr Ma’aruf also heads the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), an influential group of clerics that has issued fatwas hostile to minorities, including the Islamic sect Ahmadiyah and the gay community. 

He also issued a statement accusing former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama of blasphemy for insulting the Koran, an edict that led hundreds of thousands of protesters to swarm the streets of the Indonesian capital demanding his ouster last year. 

Mr Basuki, an ethnic Chinese Christian, lost the election as he divided his time between campaigning and defending himself against blasphemy charges in court. He was later jailed for two years.

Indonesia politics analyst Marcus Mietzner said Dr Ma'aruf's appointment could neuter attacks on Mr Joko's alleged lack of religiosity and elevate nationalist themes in the election campaign.

"(The opposition members) are probably going to shift their focus onto ultra-nationalist themes: sell-out to China, invasion of foreign workers, evil imports, predatory investors," he told Reuters in e-mailed comments.

"These are classic Prabowo themes anyway, but they will become even more pronounced this time."

Mr Joko and Mr Prabowo contested the last presidential election, in 2014. Mr Joko won but his popularity slumped mid-campaign after false reports were spread online that he was a Christian and an ethnic Chinese descendant.

According to party officials from the President's coalition, Mr Joko had favoured an alternative to Dr Ma'aruf, former constitutional court chief justice Mahfud MD.

In a television interview, Mr Mahfud said he was asked "in some detail" to prepare to be the candidate and was on standby to be anointed on Thursday.

Mr Mahfud said it was Mr Joko's decision to overlook him.

But, as quoted by the news portal detik.com, NU leader Robikin Emhas said NU leaders, including Dr Ma'aruf, told Mr Joko that they could not support Mr Mahfud.

Mr Mietzner said Mr Joko had initially discounted NU's opposition to Mr Mahfud.

"The implications are that four years into his presidency, Jokowi is still much more dependent on his supporting parties than he cares to admit. (It's) a demonstration of his continued weakness," referring to Mr Joko by his nickname.

A leader of NU-aligned National Awakening Party (PKB), Mr Muhaimin Iskander, told reporters on Thursday it was a surprise Dr Ma'aruf was selected and that Mr Mahfud was Mr Joko's initial preference.

"I thought Mahfud was chosen. But it turned out to be Ma'ruf Amin," he said.

Kompas newspaper quoted another PKB leader, Mr Abdul Kadir Karding, as saying the decision to choose Dr Ma'aruf happened on Thursday afternoon.