The Politics of Vice Presidential Picks, Indonesia 2019 Edition (UPDATED 9:20pm EDT)

Note: please see update at the end of this post.

Today Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo (a.k.a. Jokowi) announced his nomination for his running mate in the 2019 presidential election as Ma’ruf Amin, head of Indonesia’s Council of Ulema (MUI) and an influential voice for Indonesian Islam affiliated with the traditionalist Nahdhlatul Ulama, widely reported to be the world’s largest Muslim organization.

Ma’ruf has a history of service in politics, but most recently made headlines for having signed a MUI document in late 2016 that held that former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaya Purnama (Ahok) had indeed committed blasphemy against Islam. Ahok, a Christian of Chinese descent, was convicted and sent to prison on this charge. Expect Ma’ruf’s role in Ahok’s trial—he was a witness for the prosecution—to be a subject of much discussion in the coming months as Indonesians and others try to ascertain what Ma’ruf’s candidacy means for religious tolerance in Indonesia.

Stepping back from that issue, though, what do we learn about Indonesian politics from Jokowi’s choice of Ma’ruf as his VP? Vice presidential choices in Indonesia are probably governed by the same considerations that affect VP picks in any presidential system, although Indonesia is perhaps unusual in having basically no norm against dropping a sitting VP at re-election time (which is what Jokowi is doing to current VP Jusuf Kalla).* The idea is that the VP choice addresses your political weaknesses, and shores up support there.

In 2004, Indonesia’s first direct presidential election, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) chose Kalla as his running mate. Kalla, a big player in the authoritarian successor party Golkar and a Muslim from the island of Sulawesi, thereby helped him to seal up votes and support from key constituencies of “outer islanders,” religious Muslims, and Golkar, which probably was at the time the country’s most important political party.

In 2009, SBY chose then-Governor of Bank Indonesia Boediono. A non-partisan technocrat, and ethnic Javanese, Boediono’s selection signaled SBY’s confidence in his reelection, which would have allowed him to focus on policymaking rather than shoring up weaknesses among particular electoral constituencies (although history shows this second term to have been something of a disappointment).

In 2014, Jokowi chose Kalla, largely mirroring SBY’s logic in 2004.

This brings us to 2019, and Ma’ruf. He is not a party figure like Kalla, nor a technocrat like Boediono. He is from the city of Tangerang, west of Jakarta, so he’s not an outer islander but he is also not ethnic Javanese, but rather Bantenese.** Bantenese, in the Indonesian context, are understood to be observant Muslims. Ma’ruf is also not a charismatic populist, or a wannabe charismatic populist like Prabowo Subianto (Jokowi’s 2014 opponent, whose name circulated as a possible VP choice earlier this year). Ma’ruf is, instead, an institutionally-connected Islamic politician.

The conclusion to draw is that Jokowi perceives his main vulnerability to be his religious credentials, and that he fears an attack from Indonesia’s Islamists or from those seeking to exploit Islam for political purposes. Such an attack is entirely plausible given the way the 2014 campaign played out and how Indonesian politics has evolved since then. Ma’ruf credentials and public persona ought to make such an attack hard to sustain once he has joined the ticket. In Jokowi’s own words,

Kami ini saling melengkapi, nasionalis religius

We complete each other, nationalist religious.

That, anyway, is Jokowi’s bet.


* Although Kalla is term limited anyway.
** In 2016 he identified himself as orang Banten, or Bantenese. In that article to explains why forcing businesses to close during Ramadhan is a local tradition.

UPDATE (9:20pm EDT)

Having read more on the politics surrounding Jokowi’s VP choice, the preceding analysis makes a big assumption that turns out to be erroneous. That is, according to knowledgeable insider accounts of the past two days, Jokowi’s “choice” was not his own. He instead found himself—using the word’s of one expert—“ambushed” by his coalition. They, not he, chose Ma’ruf. Jokowi had intended to select Mahfud MD, a politician with rather different Islamic credentials. (Mahfud’s name had circulated for some time prior to yesterday’s announcement.)

This changes the interpretation of the politics provided above substantially. It imagines the VP nomination as a coalitional game, which it always was, but one in which the President does not lead. Jokowi did not choose Ma’ruf to shore up a weakness. Jokowi chose Ma’ruf because his coalition determined that Ma’ruf best served its interests, and Jokowi feared that coalition would not survive his rejection of Ma’ruf. Now, I might try to salvage the above analysis by stipulating that that coalition’s interests are also in maximizing reelection probability and that they believe that Ma’ruf’s Islamic credentials accomplish that (fending off the Islamist challenge, etc.), but I won’t try. I will allow others to construct that argument.

Here’s a case where knowing the actors’ strategies and choices, rather than just their interests, matters tremendously for interpreting the outcomes of complex decisionmaking process.