Religious Conservatism on the Rise in Indonesian and Malaysian Elections

Written by: Cherui Chew 

It will soon be election season in various countries across Southeast Asia, but observers are hardly optimistic about the political development in the region due to the rise of populism and socially conservative trends. Two of the growing economies in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Malaysia, are both secular countries with a majority Muslim population practicing a “moderate brand of Islam” that coexists with cultural plurality and secular political and judicial institutions. In recent years, both countries have experienced an increase in religious conservatism, both as a tool and as a byproduct of electoral competition.

After Jakarta’s gubernatorial election in April 2017, Indonesia underwent a round of regional elections in February 2018 to elect governors, mayors and municipal leaders in half of the country’s 34 provinces. Gubernatorial election in Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, is especially crucial as it is the precursor to the presidential election and its outcome generally changes the political climate in the country. Local elections in Indonesia are important to presidential bids because local winners are instrumental in building electoral support for their preferred presidential candidate. These elections formed the prelude to the highly anticipated presidential election, scheduled to take place in April 2019, where the incumbent Joko Widodo and ex-general Prabowo Subianto are to face off. 

For those reasons, the 2017 Jakarta governor election reflected the growing ethnic-religious disharmony that still lingers uneasily in the country today. Jakarta’s ethnic-Chinese and Christian governor, Basuki T. Purnama, was charged with blasphemy and faced protests by hardline Muslim groups. In a tense election that coincided with his trial for blasphemy, he lost to Anies Baswedan who aggressively courted conservative Muslim votes with the backing of presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto and hardline organizations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). President Joko Widodo, who had endorsed Purnama, chose to accept the trial results to avoid being the target of conservative Muslims.

The 2019 presidential elections in Indonesia is expected to be more polarizing. Current president, Joko Widodo, is seeking reelection and faces the same competitor from 2014, former Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto. Subianto’s candidacy is concerning because he is embroiled in accusations of human rights violation towards democracy activists in the 1980s during his service in Indonesia’s military. The former general and his party, Gerindra, form close ties with Islamic parties and hardline religious organizations. The move is strategic given that Islamist parties received roughly 32% of the vote share in the 2014 elections, exceeding expectations. Although Subianto might not necessarily push for radical Islamic agenda, his instrumental use of religious organizations will encourage the growth of conservative elements in civil society. 

Indonesia’s neighbor, Malaysia, has not experienced a transfer of power in electoral politics since its independence and is expected to hold a national election before August 2018, when the five-year parliamentary term ends. Unlike Indonesia, whose opposition is counting on religious conservatism to woo voters, it is the ruling coalition in Malaysia that takes advantage of religious plurality in Malaysia. The ruling coalition, National Front, consists of three main race-based parties and 10 other parties. However, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) wields tremendous political power and portrays itself as the defender of Malay-Muslims. As the election year nears, civil society in Malaysia is experiencing an uptick in trivial issues blown out of proportion in the name of religion, from the cancellation of Oktoberfest to playing down the Chinese Year of the Dog celebrations. The silence of UMNO ministers embolden the conservative elements in society to drive a wedge between the majority Malay-Muslim electorate and the ethnic minorities. 

For years, UMNO has relied on politicizing Islam in order to secure its power amidst waning support caused by an unsatisfactory standard of living and corrupt governance. In a series of moves to decimate the opposition coalition, UMNO flirted with the opposition Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) by offering support for the Hudud bill, a harsh Islamic criminal code involving amputation and stoning, also championed by PAS. This immediately created a rift between PAS and its secular allies and exposed the irreconcilable ideological difference in the opposition’s marriage of convenience. PAS subsequently went independent and is perceived as a political player capable of swaying electoral outcome as a third party. With the help of UMNO, the Islamic penal bill was tabled, only to be deferred in the legislative session. Opposition supporters started to fall out of love with the incohesive and disorganized coalition once believed to be the hope for regime-change, and some even expressed their disappointment by starting a spoil-vote campaign

Not only is the Malaysian ruling party willing to support radical Islamic proposals for political purposes, it also allows for the “Red Shirt” movement to flourish. The Red Shirt movement started as a counterattack towards the Bersih movement that advocates for free and fair elections. The leader of Red Shirt activism is Jamal Yunos, a radical local political leader of UMNO known for his attention-seeking and divisive demonstrations aimed to challenge religious and ethnic sensitivities. 

For new electoral competitors in Indonesia and the incumbent ruling party in Malaysia, courting Islamic parties and cooperating with hardline conservative Islamic organizations are low-cost methods to capture votes by the expansion of voter base and the creation of antagonism in a multi-ethnic society. The upcoming elections would be a huge challenge to democratic progress in the two countries.