Jokowi's New Powers to Ban Religious Groups Courts Political Risk

  • Some Islamic organizations have criticized Jokowi in past
  • Government last week banned Hizbut Tahrir organization

Indonesian President Joko Widodo risks further alienating conservative Muslim voters after being granted new powers to outlaw religious organizations.

The Law and Human Rights Ministry last week banned Hizbut Tahrir, citing the Islamist group’s support for a Muslim caliphate and other activities that deviate from Indonesia’s state principles, known as Pancasila.

Joko Widodo

Photographeer: Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

Widodo, known as Jokowi, said the new powers were needed because of increased threats to Indonesia’s unity and sovereignty. “The country must be fearless to take control,” he said last week in a statement.

Still, some opposition parties have been critical of the move, raising the potential for a more fractious parliament at a time Jokowi’s seeking to fire up the economy to generate revenue for his ambitious spending plans. Jokowi still controls about 70 percent of the 560 seats in parliament, but there have been periodic frictions even with the parties that support him.

“We are concerned that the decree is being used to suppress organizations not on the government’s side,” said Mardani Ali Sera, deputy secretary general of the opposition Prosperous Justice Party. “That’s the characteristic of an authoritarian, that the state has surpassed its authority as a facilitator that everything must be within its corridor.”

“The most effective way to tackle the problem is not by issuing a perpu but by strengthening our police,” Mardani said. “The government can assign the national intelligence agency and the military to proactively monitor anti-national groups.”

Court Test

Hizbut Tahrir has signaled it will challenge the decree in the courts while Gerindra, the party of Jokowi’s likely 2019 presidential election rival Prabowo Subianto, has expressed concerns that freedom of assembly restrictions could stir conflict.

“Hizbut Tahrir isn’t particularly well liked across the Islamic spectrum but a lot of Islamic organizations also don’t like the government disbanding civil society organizations without compelling reasons for doing so,” said Greg Fealy, a senior fellow in Indonesian politics at the Australian National University.

Members of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) demonstrate in Jakarta on July 18.

Photographer: Tubagus Aditya Irawan/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Earlier this year, rallies supported by Hizbut Tahrir helped topple Jakarta’s former Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, in an election marred by religious tensions. The election was widely seen as a proxy for the 2019 presidential race.

Mecca Trip

While Fitch Ratings affirmed its positive outlook for Indonesia on Thursday, the agency also noted that Jokowi’s reform agenda could lose momentum if political and religious frictions became a distraction in the lead up to the next election. The Jakarta gubernatorial election shows “how such issues can dominate the electoral discourse,” it said.

It’s not the first time Jokowi’s religious commitment has been questioned. Prior to the 2014 presidential vote he made a last-minute dash to Mecca in a bid to woo conservative Muslims. Jokowi’s close ties with Ahok have raised eyebrows in some Muslim quarters.

Prabowo, who lost the 2014 election to Jokowi, has been courting the Islamic vote. He was Anies Baswedan’s main backer in his winning campaign for Jakarta governor, helping to tap Muslim anger towards Ahok over comments that later led to Ahok being convicted of blasphemy.

Anis Baswedan and Prabowo Subianto.

Photographer: Adek Berry/AFP via Getty Images

In the right circumstances, the hundreds of thousands of people to who took to the streets against Ahok might be prepared to do the same to support Prabowo against Jokowi.

Fealy said Jokowi could also face a problem if the ban on Hizbut Tahrir was overturned in the courts. “That could play into the efforts of some Islamist organizations to undermine Jokowi in the run up to the 2019 election,” he said.

Another risk would be the ban leads Hizbut Tahrir’s more hardcore members to go underground and “become drawn into extremist and terrorist circles,” said Usman Hamid, director of Amnesty International Indonesia.

For now, investors are likely to take a watching brief on the political maneuvering. There are no signs that Indonesia could face the kind of security crisis that forced then-dictator Suharto from office in 1998, said David Sumual, chief economist at PT Bank Central Asia in Jakarta. So far, “I don’t see that it would delay capital spending and investment.”

Still, Liam Gammon, editor of ANU’s Southeast Asia-focused website New Mandala, said there was the potential for Hizbut Tahrir to gain sympathy from conservative Muslim voters who’d normally regard it as unpalatable.

“The ban plays into an existing narrative about an anti-Islam bias on the part of Jokowi and the secular-nationalist political tradition he comes from,” Gammon said. “But Jokowi has obviously judged that the support he will gain from moderate groups because of the ban will outweigh any galvanization of conservatives.”

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