02/09/2018, 17.21
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As elections near, advocates of pluralism and those who favour identity politics split the country

by Mathias Hariyadi

Extremists’ use of religion and ethnicity has pushed Indonesians into opposing camps. Voters will elect local governments on 27 June this year, and choose a new president and parliament on 17 April 2019.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Indonesian society is increasingly polarised between moderates, moved by patriotic feelings based on pluralism, and extremists who promote “identity politics".

The coming two years will be politically charged as the country gets ready for crucial polls that will determine its immediate future.

Local elections are scheduled for 27 June with voters called to choose 17 governors, 39 mayors and 115 regents across the country, including its four most populous provinces: West Java, East Java, Central Java, and North Sumatra.

On 17 April 2019, they will be able to renew parliament, the People's Consultative Assembly, and elect a new president.

Both rounds of voting come at a time when Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic country, has seen its reputation for religious toleration come under closer scrutiny as a result of the rise of radical Islamic groups in the young democracy.

To counter the growing number of acts of violence and rising political-religious intolerance, people have turned to inter-faith dialogue and support for pluralism.

Some observers have called this shift the ‘Ahok effect’, named after the moniker of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the former governor of Jakarta, a Christian who was convicted of blasphemy in a politically motivated trial.

Identity politics, including those based on religion and ethnicity, have been politically useful for extremists. But in doing so they have divided the nation.

"Social segregation is intentionally designed and maintained with specific political objectives in mind," said an expert working in the President’s Special Assistance Desk, speaking to AsiaNews.

The source claims that this trend, which shaped local elections in Jakarta in April 2017 won by Anies Baswedan and radical Islamist groups, is bound to intensify in the next elections.

"In last year's Jakarta gubernatorial election, this kind of 'identity politics' worked very well, and has split modern Indonesian society into two distinct 'political' camps."

Anies’ use of sectarian divisions and religion against his main rival, Ahok, an ethnic Chinese Christian who had been the frontrunner in the early stages of the election campaign, proved decisive.

The Indonesian Church has always been involved in initiatives and projects aimed at promoting and guaranteeing the national values ​​of pluralism, expressed in the Pancasila philosophical and political platform.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Indonesia (KWI) has repeatedly stressed the importance of the role played by the Catholic Church in the process of national unity, and has urged Catholics to establish closer ties with other communities and religions and their leaders.

For instance, the Archdiocese of Jakarta has welcomed 2018 as "the Year of Unity". The city’s archbishop, Mgr Ignatius Suharyo Hardjoatmodjo, noted that the diocese dedicated its four-year working plan (2016-2020) to the founding principles of the Indonesian State, namely ‘Amalkan Pancasila’, which means ‘putting the spirit of Pancasila into practice’.

Against the background of tensions that has engulfed the country, Catholics are showing a sense of responsibility and are not allowing themselves to be dragged into instrumental political controversies.

This is especially true in Jakarta, where the line adopted by the new administration has attracted criticism. In particular, many observers complain that Governor Anies Baswedan is trying to undo the good work of his predecessor, especially with respect to traffic and flood controls.

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