VOL. 7, NO. 1, PGS. 1–11


Collusive Elite, Divided Public
Religio-Political Polarization in Indonesia
Burhanuddin Muhtadi

Burhanuddin Muhtadi is Visiting Fellow in the Indonesia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the Islamic State University (UIN) Syarif Hidayatullah.

Many scholars on Indonesian politics point to the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections as the catalyst for a deepening of the long-standing ideological divide between pluralists and Islamists. In both presidential elections, Joko Widodo (Jokowi) enjoyed widespread support especially among pluralist voters, particularly the syncretic and traditionalist Muslims in Java and minorities non-Muslim voters on other islands. While those who live in West Java, Banten, Sumatra, and Sulawesi, traditionally strongholds of Masyumi, the most ardent advocate of Islamist causes in the first parliamentary election held after Indonesia achieved independence in 1955, tended to cast their votes for Prabowo Subianto.1 As a result of this electoral polarization which divided the Indonesian voters along religio-political and geographical cleavages, programmatically based election campaigns had little impact in the 2019 lost to the cacophonous campaign theme around consolidation of primordial sentiments. The percentage of non-Muslims who voted for Jokowi even reached 97%, a significant increase from 2014.2 Similarly, more supporters of the traditionalist Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) voted for Jokowi in 2019 than in 2014. The members of the modernist Islamic group Muhammadiyah, on the other hand, were the backbone of Prabowo’s electoral strength.

The election missed a valuable opportunity to evaluate the programmatic campaigns offered by competing presidential candidates due to extreme polarization. The rational choice model, which bases “reward and punishment” on satisfaction with the incumbent’s performance, failed to explain the election outcome. The Alvara Research Center discovered that economic indicators had little influence on the outcome of the 2019 presidential election.3 Among the three indicators tested, there was no strong and significant positive correlation between Jokowi’s vote share per province and the Gini ratio, the human development index, or the percentage of the population living in poverty. As a result, regardless of whether the incumbent president is successful or not in reducing economic inequality, voters eventually did not take these fundamentals into account in their voting decision in the 2019 presidential election. Similarly, neither the Human Development Index nor the percentage of poverty in a certain province could predict the support for either of the two candidates running against each other in 2019.

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