Widodo Courts Indonesian Clerics to Win Islamic Voters

Indonesian presidential hopeful Joko Widodo has been courting clerics, with today’s parliamentary election results to show how much he will need the Islamic vote to win in July.

The Jakarta governor, who built his political career independent of major party machinery and reliance on religious groups, winning office after working as a small businessman, met clerics in East and Central Java last weekend. He is seeking the backing of the National Awakening Party, or PKB, whose base comes from Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s biggest Muslim organization, with its 40 million supporters.

Confirmation of a weaker-than-expected performance by his party in the April 9 parliamentary vote means Widodo, 52, may have to rely on the endorsement of clerics and broaden his appeal to Islamic voters. That could see him form a bigger coalition that makes it harder for him to embark on changes such as cutting fuel subsidies should he take office.

Islamic parties fared better than surveys forecast in the election, alongside a scattering of smaller parties. To bring NU members into the fold, the backing of the clerics is crucial, said Muhammad Asfar, a political analyst from the University of Airlangga in Surabaya, East Java.

“The question is whether these clerics are giving the signal” to support Widodo, said Asfar. “From my observation, they are still waiting for the person Jokowi will name as his running mate,” he said, referring to Widodo by his nickname.

Boarding School

Official results are expected around 7:30 p.m. local time. Unofficial results from the April poll show PKB secured about 9 percent of the vote, up from 4.9 percent in 2009. Widodo’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, won 19.6 percent, below the threshold of 25 percent of the popular vote or 20 percent of parliamentary seats needed to nominate a presidential candidate on its own.

PKB and the National Democratic Party have expressed support for Widodo and such a coalition would hold an estimated 35 percent of the vote. A formal deal between PKB and PDI-P is pending today’s announcement of the official results, Marwan Jafar, PKB’s head of the central executive board, said May 3.

In Jombang, East Java, Widodo visited the 114 year-old Tebuireng Islamic boarding school where former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, who once led NU and helped establish PKB, is buried. Students scuffled to shake Widodo’s hand and from above faces peered out of windows for a glimpse of the governor as he was ushered into a room to meet the school’s manager, Wahid’s brother Salahuddin Wahid.

Getting Advice

In Yogyakarta, Widodo met Ahmad Syafii Maarif, former chairman of Indonesia’s second-largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, and a recipient of the 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Award for peace and international understanding. In Surabaya, Widodo met Khofifah Indar Parawansa, a former minister who leads NU’s women’s wing, and announced her as his spokeswoman for the election.

“These are courtesy visits,” Widodo said after meeting Maimun Zubair of the Al Anwar Islamic boarding school in Rembang, Central Java on May 4. “I received plenty of advice” Widodo said, adding his discussion with Zubair revolved around “uniting and synergizing nationalists and the religious.”

If elected, Widodo must lead Southeast Asia’s biggest economy out of its slowest growth since 2009 as interest rate increases last year curb investment and a mineral-ore export ban hurt the mining industry.

Not Monolithic

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. While President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won plaudits for tackling militant groups and reducing the risk of attacks following the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, he has also been criticized by Human Rights Watch and the European Union for not addressing rising religious intolerance.

“For an Indonesian politician to demonstrate he’s a good Muslim is like an American politician saying he’s God-fearing - it’s a pre-requisite,” said Paul Rowland, a political analyst based in Jakarta. “The NU vote is not monolithic, it doesn’t go to a single candidate.”

A Widodo government would need to communicate clearly with coalition partners about its policies to avoid the division that has plagued the current government, according to Maswadi Rauf, a professor of political science at the University of Indonesia. Yudhoyono governs in an alliance with five other parties.

PKB Platform

PKB’s platform addresses the welfare of villagers, protection for farmers and fishermen, labor conditions, and increasing the role of women, according to its website. Widodo said on May 3 that fuel subsidies should be gradually reduced over four years and the savings diverted to help farmers and fishermen.

“A slim coalition with a common bond in ideology, program and platform is more important to governance,” said Arie Sujito, a political analyst at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. “The coalition of SBY’s government is big but there’s no chemistry, no platform when forming the coalition and eventually divisions occurred which made the government not productive,” he said, referring to Yudhoyono.

Still, having Islamic parties in the government shouldn’t pose a major problem for Widodo’s policy agenda as they and PDI-P share a pragmatic view of running the country, Rauf said. Widodo said May 3 that PKB and the National Democratic Party had not asked for seats in the cabinet.

Fuel Push

Success in lowering the subsidies would reduce local demand for government-funded cheap fuel that’s hurt the current account and currency, while freeing up budget funds for the roads, ports and power networks needed to spur investment and create jobs in the world’s fourth-most populous nation. Widodo will first need to win over voters in a nation where protests accompanied past price increases and riots spurred by soaring living costs helped oust dictator Suharto in 1998.

Widodo’s approval rating fell to 51.6 percent from 62 percent in December, still ahead of his closest rival, Prabowo Subianto of Gerindra, on 35.7 percent, according to a survey last month by Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting.

To woo NU members Widodo should appoint a vice presidential candidate who is known for their Islamic credentials, Airlangga’s Asfar said. “It will take Jokowi’s wisdom to pick someone who’s not only competent but also symbolically acceptable.”

Widodo, who lists heavy metal bands Metallica, Megadeth and Lamb of God among his favorites, talked with Al Anwar boarding school’s Zubair for nearly an hour at his house in an alley packed with onlookers trying to peek inside.

‘No Differences’

Considered an elder of NU and the United Development Party, which has yet to align itself with a presidential candidate, the 85 year-old Zubair told Widodo he should address the nation’s development with a religious approach that’s not restricted to Islam.

“There are no differences when it comes to upholding morality, property and human dignity,” Zubair, sitting on a sofa next to Widodo, told reporters in his living room. When asked whether he supported Widodo for president, Zubair said “I will pray for everyone, whoever leads this country, including Jokowi.”