Jokowi's running mate offers Ahok olive branch

Ma'ruf's statement of regret for testifying against former Jakarta governor seen as bid to appease minority voters

Analysts said the statement by Mr Ma'ruf Amin (above), who is the running mate of President Joko Widodo in polls set for April, is aimed at attracting voters from minority groups.
Analysts said the statement by Mr Ma'ruf Amin (above), who is the running mate of President Joko Widodo in polls set for April, is aimed at attracting voters from minority groups.ST FILE PHOTO

A recent statement of regret issued by Indonesian vice-presidential candidate Ma'ruf Amin for testifying against former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in a blasphemy case has paved the way for a reconciliation between the two, with analysts viewing it as a political move to appease pluralists.

In a 48-second interview with a local media outlet which went viral last week, the 75-year-old conservative cleric, formerly chairman of the influential Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), admitted that he was made to give the testimony as part of law enforcement.

Mr Ma'ruf, the running mate of President Joko Widodo in polls set for April, was a key prosecution witness in a case that led to the imprisonment of Basuki, popularly known by his Chinese nickname Ahok, on the grounds that he had insulted the Quran.

Indonesian Institute of Sciences socio-political researcher Amin Mudzakkir said Mr Ma'ruf's recent statement has served as a precondition to a reconciliation with Basuki on his expected release from jail on Jan 24. He underlined the statement's political nature, saying it is aimed at attracting voters from minority groups, particularly Basuki's supporters.

"If Ahok later responds to Ma'ruf positively, that could be productive for Ma'ruf's campaign," Mr Amin told The Straits Times, adding that the statement needs to be followed by a meeting between the two later, in order to create a stronger effect.

Basuki, Jakarta's first Chinese and Christian governor, was sentenced to two years' jail after a Jakarta court ruled that he was guilty of blasphemy against Islam in May 2017, just weeks after he lost the Jakarta gubernatorial election to his rival, former culture and education minister Anies Baswedan.

Basuki's early release took into account remission that he received over the Christmas holidays.

Political analyst Arya Fernandes from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said Mr Ma'ruf's statement is a political move based on electoral considerations as he does not want to lose votes from minority groups and Basuki's backers.

"Minority groups are waiting to see Mr Ma'ruf's further commitment on pluralism because Ahok's case showed his different stance," Mr Arya said. "The statement is to comfort the minority."

During his tenure as MUI chairman, Mr Ma'ruf supported controversial regulations, like a ministerial decree that bans religious activities of Ahmadiyah followers, and issued unfavourable recommendations, including one suggesting that Muslims do not congratulate Christians celebrating Christmas.

The decision by Mr Joko, a reform-minded leader, to pick Mr Ma'ruf as his partner in his re-election bid is seen by many as a way to boost his Islamic credentials - and temper his image of being anti-Islam - in the country with the world's biggest Muslim population.

Mr Arya, however, noted that the impact of the statement on the electability of the Joko Widodo-Ma'ruf Amin pair is likely to be insignificant as there has been no notable change in Mr Joko's popularity among voters after he declared his intention to team up with Mr Ma'ruf in August last year.

Mr Ma'ruf should focus on attracting Muslim voters, especially in areas with large Muslim populations yet to be tapped successfully, said Mr Arya, adding: "Mr Ma'ruf must be cautious about such a statement as it can get adverse interpretations from Muslim groups."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 08, 2019, with the headline 'Jokowi's running mate offers Ahok olive branch'. Subscribe