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Candidates encouraging identity politics with Islamic boarding school visits

CNN Indonesia - October 22, 2018

Jakarta, CNN Indonesia – Since the 2019 presidential campaign period officially opened on September 22, both presidential and vice presidential tickets have waged "guerrilla warfare" through visits to Islamic boarding schools (pondok pesantren) in every corner of the country.

Almost every day, the number 01 presidential ticket of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and vice presidential candidate Ma'ruf Amin and the number 02 ticket of Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno have an agenda item that includes a visit to an Islamic boarding school.

Today for example, coinciding with National Santri Day [Islamic boarding school or religious pupils day], vice presidential candidate Ma'ruf Amin  will visit the Cipasung pesantren in Tasikmalaya, West Java. Prabowo and Sandiaga meanwhile will visit the Bahrul Ulum Tambakberas pesantren in Jombang, East Java.

Yet the General Election Commission (KPU) has already made it clear that campaign activities at educational institutions, including Islamic boarding schools, are not allowed.

This is regulated by Law Number 7/2017 on Elections (UU Pemilu). Article 280 Paragraph 1 states that "organisers, contestants, and election campaign teams are prohibited from: (h). using government facilities, places of worship, and places of education".

Although this article is a clear prohibition on campaigning at Islamic boarding schools, both camps justify their visits on the grounds that they are simply holding goodwill meetings or social gatherings (silaturahmi). They claim that there is no electoral campaigning or invitations to vote for them during the visits.

Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI) researcher Siti Zuhro believes that the candidates' emphasis on visiting pesantrens shows that their campaigns are still heavily entrenched in identity politics.

Both candidate pairs are still playing the old political game of developing a pro-Islam image in order to garner votes from Muslim voters.

"The current election proves that the endless visits by the [political] elite to the pesantrens, embracing the ulamas [Islamic teachers] and kiai [Islamic scholars], is still crucial and shows the importance of saying to the public that they are pro-Islam. Never mind the politicisation of religion", said Zuhro when contacted by CNN Indonesia on Monday October 22.

Zuhro said that this kind of image building is still quite effective in Indonesia bearing in mind that the majority of the population is Muslim, around 85 percent out of a population of 265 million.

The pesantrens, said Zuhro, have a top-down communication system. So if the candidates succeed in "tying up" the top leaders, in this case the kiai, there is a good possibility that they will also get the support of the santri [students]. From the santri it is then hoped that they can draw in the grass roots communities which hold the santri in high regard.

"[Although it is prohibited] they continue the visits meaning that [the support] is significant. The pesantrens are in contact with the grass roots (lower layers of society). A niche of support that is just as sexy as the millennial [vote]", said Zuhro.

Speaking in the same vein, Al-Azhar Indonesia University political observer Ujang Komarudin says that political support from the pesantrens is absolutely critical.

Although he can't give an estimate of exactly how many votes this represents, Komarudin says that there are millions of potential santri voters. They can be drawn in by means of building an emotional link with kiai and ulama as a symbol of the supremacy of the pesantren.

This emotional link with the kiai, he said, will not just influence santri who are still studying at pesantrens but also pesantren graduates and religious congregations of the kiai outside of the pesantren.

Legal loophole

In addition to this and related to the current situation, Komarudin sees that both the Prabowo and Widodo camps are still taking advantage of loopholes in the electoral law, namely by claiming that their visits to pesantren are just silaturahmi. Yet their visits are clearly an appeal for electoral support.

"[It's not part of campaigning] if they don't invite [voters to support them], don't invite them to vote [for them], distribute brochures, banners, leaflets, name cards, their vision and mission, program. This is the loophole that is being used by the candidates", said Komarudin.

Zuhro meanwhile believes that both camps should be more astute and show more authority. She suggests that both camps stop "silaturahmi-ing" at pesantren. This is because the line that differentiates an ordinary visit from mass campaigning is still too narrow.

"If it's wrong, then prohibit it, just ban it. Close the door on all candidate visits to pesantrens. Just find an way that's legitimate in legal terms, like inviting the kiai and santri to hold a silaturahmi, said Zuhro. (dhf/kid)

[Translated by James Balowski for the Indoleft News Service. The original title of the article was Silaturahmi Pesantren, Merawat Politik Identitas Demi Pilpres.]

Source: https://www.cnnindonesia.com/nasional/20181022121012-32-340369/silaturahmi-pesantren-merawat-politik-identitas-demi-pilpres.

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