Jokowi picks senior cleric as running mate

JAKARTA (The Straits Times/ANN) - Surprising move widely seen as attempt to bolster Islamic credentials in 2019 election

Indonesian President Joko Widodo yesterday picked conservative cleric Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate for next year's presidential elections, in a surprising move that is seen widely as an attempt to bolster his Islamic credentials.

Dr Ma'ruf Amin, 75, chairman of the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), will run as the vice-presidential candidate in the April 17 polls where Mr Joko is expected to face off against former general Prabowo Subianto to lead South-east Asia's biggest economy.

Mr Joko made the decision after meeting leaders of his nine coalition parties. He said his decision followed deep contemplation and suggestions from various groups as well as approval from party leaders.

"Maybe there are questions from the people all over Indonesia why Professor Dr Ma'ruf Amin was chosen. Because he is a wise religious figure," said Mr Joko. "We complement each other, representing nationalist and religious camps."

Mr Joko's decision ended months of speculation about who would be his V-P candidate. Just hours before the announcement, there was heavy speculation that the President would pick former Constitutional Court chief and defence minister Mahfud MD.

Apart from his key role in MUI, Dr Ma'ruf is the supreme leader of Indonesia's largest Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama and has a track record as a regional legislator and lawmaker. He was a member of the People's Consultative Assembly, or MPR, and the Presidential Advisory Board.

He is a graduate of Bogor-based Ibnu Khaldun University and has an honorary doctorate from Malang State Islamic University.

However, Dr Ma'ruf and MUI have played other roles in politics that are not without controversy.

One example often cited by his critics is the MUI statement that condemned former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama - an ethnic Chinese Christian who was an ally of Mr Joko - as a blasphemer for insulting the Quran in the Jakarta gubernatorial election last year. Dr Ma'ruf later testified at Basuki's trial.

The Islamic cleric began to weave a closer relationship with Mr Joko after the massive demonstration against Basuki in early November last year, according to local media reports.

There are worries in Indonesia that the tensions seen in the Jakarta election last year, which was marred by the fanning of racial and religious issues largely incited by hardline groups, will be repeated in the 2019 presidential race, which could threaten the re-election of Mr Joko.

Analysts have said that Mr Joko may need a strong Islamic figure as a running mate not only to counter rivals who may use these religious issues, but also to lure voters in conservative strongholds in Indonesia's most-populated island of Java.

In the 2014 election campaign that Mr Joko eventually won, he was hit by an online smear campaign claiming that his family was communist and he is of Chinese descent.

With the announcement by Mr Joko's camp, all eyes are now on his contender, Mr Prabowo, who had been expected to declare his running mate yesterday.

Candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency must submit their nomination by today.

A senior Gerindra party official said Jakarta's deputy governor Sandiaga Uno is "99 per cent" certain to become Mr Prabowo's pick, Reuters reported yesterday.

Mr Arya Fernandes, a political analyst from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told The Straits Times that Mr Joko's decision on Dr Ma'ruf reveals his willingness to accommodate the interests of various political parties and compromise. However, the move closes the possibility of the establishment of a third camp of Islamic candidates in the next polls, he added.

Mr Arya further said that after solving the Muslim vote issue, the equally-tough challenge will emerge if Mr Prabowo chooses Mr Sandiaga, who represents a young leader, as young voters might be attracted to this pair. "Indonesia's demography has changed. The number of young voters has increased and this should also be addressed by Mr Joko," he said.

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