Commentary: In Indonesia, one party’s lonely battle for minority voices

SINGAPORE: Various minority groups in Indonesia face an inconvenient truth: Whoever wins the election, they will end up losing, as candidates ignore minority interests in favour of securing the majority’s votes.

Reaching out to minority groups in the world’s largest Muslim population has been a particularly divisive and politically precarious affair. If politicians embrace their causes, they will risk alienating the majority.

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This explains why incumbent presidential candidate Joko “Jokowi” Widodo chose a Muslim conservative figure, Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate.

Jokowi, who won the previous presidential election for his support for pluralism, has decided to switch his strategy by leaning towards Muslim conservatives.

FILE PHOTO: Indonesia’s incumbent presidential candidate Joko Widodo and his running mate for the upcoming election Ma’ruf Amin gesture as they greet their supporters at a carnaval during his campaign rally in Tangerang

READ: Jokowi, an upstart, ‘a sort of outsider’ who employs hard-nosed tactics, a commentary

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It seems that he wants to avoid the defeat experienced by Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election due to oppositions from conservative groups. 

Ahok, who is Chinese-Indonesian and Christian, was Jokowi’s deputy when the latter became Jakarta’s governor. He was recently released from prison for blasphemy charges.

Just when there seemed to be no place for minority groups in Indonesia’s political spheres, a new political party called the Indonesian Solidarity Party, or PSI, is bringing new hope to those marginalised by raising minority issues in its campaign.

READ: The Big Read: Religion, fake news take centre stage as divided Indonesia goes to the polls

PSI: A PARTY FOR INDONESIA’S MILLENNIALS

Established in November 2014, PSI is part of a coalition of nine parties that endorses Jokowi’s reelection.

PSI is known as the party that targets millenials. A majority of PSI cadres are young and the party limits its membership to people under 45.

READ: Standing up to be counted – The millennial election candidates looking to shake up Indonesian politics

Founded by former presenter Grace Natalie, PSI is also known as a new party that specifically targets minority votes.

Being a member of a minority group herself, Grace is very sympathetic to the issues of minorities, in particular women and non-Muslims, because she believes these groups are under-represented in society and politics. About 45 per cent of their cadres are also women.

Amid growing religious conservatism, Grace likes to address sensitive issues in her speeches.

On several occasions, she has brought up topics such as anti-religious laws and anti-polygamy legislation. Police reports have been made because of her remarks.

The leader of the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), Grace Natalie (R) looks at a monitor with a staff member at the party’s headquarters in Jakarta, Indonesia March 19, 2018. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside/Files

READ: Indonesia’s ‘millenials party’ calls out fellow members of Jokowi coalition

At the grass-roots level, PSI political candidates fight for the same cause. One of them is the PSI legislative candidate for the Sidoarjo regency in East Java, Almaedawati Erina. I met her during my field stud analysing political trends prior to the 2019 election in March.

A Christian Javanese woman from a multi-religious family, Almaedawati has defended minority rights. She has appealed to minorities in her district by showing that neither PSI nor she is anti-Islam. 

She has chosen to situate her campaign headquarters next to a prominent village mosque and has promised the mosque’s preservation and renovation if she were to be elected. Her volunteers are also diverse in their faiths and ethnicity.

PSI have fielded candidates in all provinces although not in all districts.

Another example is the PSI presence in Pontianak, West Kalimantan. Its members are made up of Madurese from Madura Island in East Java. The Madurese is a minority in West Kalimantan of whom many are migrants.

FOCUS ON MINORITIES

Some observers have argued PSI’s focus on minorities has been a liability rather than an asset. Surveys indicate the party’s electability is still low as they focus on issues close to the hearts of few voters.

PSI is deemed less popular as it doesn’t focus on bread-and-butter issues that have become the default strategy of the majority of political parties in securing votes from low-income voters.

In some cases, PSI’s strategy also backfired. In Pontianak, other minority ethnicities such as the Chinese have reservations approaching the party due to the dominance of Madurese party members. In this sense, the PSI’s focus and campaign, especially in the outer islands, have not been consistent.

There has been a growing hostility towards Indonesia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. (Photo: AFP/Chaideer MAHYUDDIN)

READ: ‘Identity politics’ – How Indonesia’s presidential race is run

Nonetheless, focusing on minorities and tackling underlying issues of intolerance in Indonesia when all others have abstained, is a novel approach long in coming.

LONE FIGHTER

But it seems PSI is fighting alone.

PSI’s focus on minority issues used to be shared by other traditionally nationalist, centre-left parties like the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). 

Under Jokowi’s coalition parties, constituents of PDI-P and PSI overlap. But PSI champions the cause of minorities and intolerance more vociferously. Meanwhile, PDI-P has adopted new strategies that cater more to the majority.

To generate more votes, nationalist parties have decided to ignore religious and ethnic minorities’ appeal against acts of intolerance.

In Mojokerto regency, East Java, various political party candidates were afraid of taking a stand after a group of local Muslims forcefully dug up the body of a Christian interred in a public cemetery even though permission was granted previously. They fear offending their Muslim-majority constituency.

If the preferences of the majority of political parties has indeed alienated the minority vote, PSI’s dogged publicity of minority rights and issues certainly gives Indonesian society a pause for thought.

READ: Politics, not policies, to determine the re-run race between Prabowo and Jokowi, a commentary

Whether or not PSI wins in the coming legislative election and proves detractors wrong on its strategies, providing minority voices a platform free of fear and intimidation is long overdue.

Chen Jieyang Jonathan is associate research fellow at the Indonesia Programme at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), in Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

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