What is Indonesia’s Vice President doing for the country?

Vice President Ma'ruf Amin (left) speaks to journalists at his office in Jakarta. - Filepic

WHAT is the real contribution of Indonesian Vice President Ma’ruf Amin to the country as it deals with the devastating impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic?

What are his achievements as the country’s second-most powerful state official – Constitutionally – in implementing the special assignments President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has entrusted to him? I am afraid even Ma’ruf’s staunchest supporters and his inner circle would find it difficult to give a convincing answer to these questions.

How, for example, has he exercised his influence on the conservative and hardline Muslim groups and those who oppose the government’s Covid-19 policies regarding vaccinations and mask-wearing? Given his credentials as a prominent Muslim cleric who once headed the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), such a role should not be too complicated for him.

There have been jokes about the vice-presidential post, which may be helpful in examining the issue from a more realistic perspective. First is the testimony of then president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid several days after his dramatic win over his long-time friend Megawati Soekarnoputri in the 1999 election in the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). Gus Dur made fun of himself and Megawati, who eventually became his vice president: “We have the ideal president and vice president right now. A president who cannot see, and a vice president who cannot talk,” said the blind president about vice president Megawati who rarely spoke in public. Two years later Megawati replaced Gus Dur after the MPR impeached him.

A vice president is often described as a person who is close to power but has no power at all. In more derogative terms, a vice president is described as a ban serep (spare tire). But Indonesian history records at least two vice presidents who did their jobs impressively. Just look at Boediono, who served as vice president in the second term of then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY). You cannot dismiss the exceptional track record of Jusuf Kalla either. He served as vice president under two presidents: SBY in his first term (2004-2009) and Jokowi in his first term (2014-2019). As the second-in-command, both Boediono and Kalla were not only helpful but also played active and effective roles in managing the country’s economic policies.

Second, Ma’ruf can also learn from the comments of two former United States vice presidents, Calvin Coolidge and Nelson Rockefeller. It is up to Ma’ruf to choose between the two or combine them: “I enjoyed my time as vice president. It never interfered with my mandatory 11 hours of sleep a day,” said Coolidge, the 29th vice president; “I am not in a leadership position. I am supporting the president. He can exert the leadership and I can support him,” Rockefeller, the 41st vice president, remarked. I believe Ma’ruf will emulate Rockefeller and he only needs to prove it.

President Jokowi chose 75-year- old cleric Ma’ruf as his running mate in 2019 at the very last minute. At that time Jokowi was facing a terrible onslaught from his rival Prabowo Subianto’s camp and conservative Muslim groups who questioned his Islamic credentials because of what they described as the criminalisation of ulema.

Jokowi had to find a new running mate, because the Consti-tution did not permit Kalla to seek a third term. The “not pro” and even “anti” Islam image forced a usually self-confident Jokowi to pick Ma’ruf, the then MUI chairman. Some of the council members were not only pro Prabowo but also anti-Jokowi. Through his testimony in court, Ma’ruf played a part in sending Jokowi’s ally then, Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, to jail for blasphemy in 2017.

Ma’ruf was born on March 11, 1943. He held various positions in the House of Representatives, the country’s largest Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), MUI, and the Pancasila Ideology Development Agency (BPIP) before ascending to the vice-presidential post.

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in March last year, Ma’ruf caused controversy by proposing that the government issue “Corona-free certificates” for foreigners travelling to Indonesia. Critics associated the advice with Ma’ruf’s past job as chairman of the MUI, which used to hold the monopoly for issuing halal certificates for food, beverages and drugs. President Jokowi had actually assigned Ma’ruf to focus on poverty eradication, improving the people’s welfare and economic empowerment, and development of the sharia economy. As Covid-19 began to rear its ugly head, Jokowi asked Ma’ruf to focus on managing the “religious life” of the community during the pandemic.

The task looks simple at a glance, but it is extremely challenging. With many, due to religious beliefs, denying the pandemic is taking place, rejecting the national vaccination programme and the health protocols to contain the virus transmission, the Vice President’s role is more crucial than ever. Especially now that the government is enforcing the emergency public activity restrictions (PPKM Darurat), challenges are mounting particularly for those whose daily income is severely affected by the mobility curbs.

Last week, Ma’ruf proposed that mosques remain open but that gathering for religious activities inside or outside places of worship should be banned. He also asked for a total ban on wedding ceremonies in areas where the PPKM Darurat are in force.

Ahead of the Islamic Day of Sacrifice, Ma’ruf also called on Muslims in Java, Bali and other restricted areas to observe the holiday at home, learning from the Idul Fitri exodus that led to the current surge of Covid-19 infections.

Bapak Ma’ruf, as a senior and respected Muslim cleric, you have a great opportunity to help the nation, regardless of differences in faith and political views, cling together in the fight against this deadly disease. – The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network

Kornelius Purba is a senior editor at The Jakarta Post.

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