JAKARTA: Joko Widodo is one of Indonesia’s most devoted crusaders against fake news, and for good reason: It’s personal.
The Indonesian president known as Jokowi, who’s campaigning for a second five-year term, has sought to keep voters focused on his track record of infrastructure building, tax reform and lower food prices.
But social media-driven rumours – that he isn’t a pious Muslim, that he sympathises with the banned Communist party, that he’s of Chinese descent – are proving difficult to shake in the final days leading up to the April 17 poll.
Under Jokowi, Indonesia has grown into a trillion-dollar economy, inflation has more than halved and he’s beaten the target to create 10 million jobs in the first five-year term.
But his double-digit lead has narrowed in recent weeks, and religion remains a wild card in his bid to defeat former army commando Prabowo Subianto to head the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority country.
Questions of religious identity have become an increasing political issue in Indonesia, which was founded on secular ideals to unite a diverse archipelago stretching across three time zones.
While no major policy shifts are expected if Jokowi wins a second term, analysts see the possibility that Indonesia could take steps such as outlawing same-sex relations.
Ahead of this election, Jokowi sought to bolster his religious credentials by picking Ma’ruf Amin, the country’s most senior Islamic cleric, as his running mate.
The move was seen as a reaction to the 2017 Jakarta governor election, when a Chinese-Christian political ally of Jokowi lost amid claims he insulted Islam.
While the poisonous atmosphere of 2017 has yet to materialise in the presidential election, Jokowi’s opponents are raising questions about his faith in social media and door-to-door campaigns, said Douglas Ramage, managing director of Bower Group Asia in Indonesia.
“The social conservatism propelled by the majority community is here to stay irrespective of who wins the election,” Ramage said.
“If Jokowi wins, he will have a senior cleric as his vice-president and one could expect him to exert some influence on policies that reflect the growing preference for conservatism among Indonesian middle class.”
Conservative Islamic groups, who dislike Jokowi’s secular policies and his crackdown against terrorist groups, have rallied behind his opponent Prabowo, as Subianto is popularly known. The groups, who demand the adoption of syariah rules in the secular country, accuse Jokowi’s administration of unfairly detaining some Islamic clerics for criticising the government.
Jokowi has dismissed the allegations as baseless, but they threaten to stir tensions.
“I wanted to let the rumours die naturally, but since some people believe them, I have to make a clarification,” Jokowi told residents of an Islamic boarding school in Rembang in Central Java on Feb 1.
The president said his record should not be in question: he holds regular meetings with clerics in his office and has declared a national day in honour of Islamic students.
He revisited the issue again on March 23, urging people to combat fake news: “I need to clear the allegations because according to a survey as many as nine million people believe them.”
Still, disaffection with Jokowi stretches beyond questions over his beliefs.
After sweeping into the office on his common-man image and proven administrative skills as the former mayor of the Central Java city of Solo, he’s now facing growing dissatisfaction among the middle-class for his failure to lift economic growth to seven percent – a key promise of his 2014 campaign.
Had he reached that target, it would have created “decent employment,” said Muhamad Chatib Basri, a former finance minister.
While the national unemployment rate has fallen to a two-decade low, more and more educated youth are finding it difficult to land well-paid jobs, he said.
Jokowi has taken note of the urban disenchantment and has promised to focus more on providing jobs that can meet the aspirations of the youth. — Bloomberg