Identity Politics and Pilpres 2024: Learning from Aksi 212

Rally-goers at the original Aksi 212 demonstration at the National Monument in Jakarta, Indonesia. Credit: (AP/Dita Alangkara)

A Four-Part Series on Political Islam and Pemilu 2024 – Part 4: Identity Politics and Pilpres 2024: Learning from Aksi 212


Indonesia’s Pemilihan Presiden (Pilpres) and Pemilihan Kepala Daerah (Pilkada) are always a source of excitement for the public. Indonesians are eagerly awaiting for 2024, their next chance to exercise their democratic rights.

Two things must be noted as we anticipate the upcoming elections in 2024.  

The first relates to the public’s criteria of prospective leaders. Here we must turn our attention to a recently concluded survey by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on young voters’ socio-political preference.

Result of the survey show that respondents were split in terms of the characters they want to see in the future leaders. These include honest/not corrupt (34.8%), populist and modest (15.9%), firm and authoritative (12.4%), high-achieving and have good performance (11.6%), competent in leading (6.7%), religious (4.1%), and intelligent and clever (3.6%).

Meanwhile, from the aspect of presidential competency they desire in the 2024 elections, 28.7% wanted leaders that could make changes, 21% wanted someone who could lead in critical situations and 14.8% wanted leaders who could make innovative policies.

Second, in addition to character, the public’s assessment of the election process is also essential. The process is defined as how prospective leaders apply strategies to win the position. The use of identity politics, which may arise during campaign period, is one such strategies that has intensified in the past few years.

Most perceive identity politics as a threat that weakens social cohesion. Identity politics commonly refers to religious exclusivity, intolerance and disrespect toward minority rights. A blatant example of the employment of identity politics was in Pemilihan Gubernur DKI Jakarta 2017 (the 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial Election – Pilgub), which successfully polarized Indonesia along religious (and ethnic) lines (i.e., in this case, Muslim and non-Muslim as well as pribumi and non-pribumi). This saw numerous large scale demonstrations being conducted including Aksi 212 (the 212 Action). Identity politics along religious (and ethnic) lines was also observable in other areas, such as Pilgub Maluku 2019 and and Pilpres 2019.

In light of past polarization, concerns are now being conveyed whether the country would see identity politics being drummed up again ahead of the 2024 elections.

This article will review the potential of Aksi 212 as a driving force for identity politics in the lead up to Pilpres 2024. What can we learn from Aksi 212’s agenda and strategy during Pilgub Jakarta 2017 and contextualize it for the coming Pilpres 2024?

Aksi 212

Aksi 212 was a response to the blasphemy case committed by Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) during his re-election campaign as Jakarta Governor. “212” itself refers to 2 December 2016, which marks the day of the largest mass demonstration in protest of Ahok’s blasphemous speech.

There were two underlying reasons why Aksi 212 needed to take action. Firstly, the blasphemy was seen as insulting Muslims and the group was concerned that Ahok would not be prosecuted fairly, due to his association with President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. Therefore, there was an imperative for these Muslims to “unite” and pressure the state to conduct a fair trial to convict Ahok. Secondly, some Muslims felt uncomfortable to have Ahok as the governor, who hails from a double-minority status (Christian and ethnic Chinese).

Ahok eventually lost the election and was subsequently found guilty of committing blasphemy. He was replaced by Anies Baswedan, who became the governor of Jakarta.

During Pilgub Jakarta 2017,  Aksi 212 was considered a success because it intentionally and unintentionally incorporated multiple religious and political variables into its activities that managed to influence the outcome of the political process. Each variable played a part in contributing to political fundraising, organizing mass and coordinating efforts that made the movement successful.

One notable example is that its participants comprised both political actors and religious organizations with aach played different roles (i.e. politics and religion, respectively). Aksi 212 also had a combined structure of both organized (some participants adhered to the structure set up by Gerakan Nasional Pengawal Fatwa MUI [National Movement to Guard the Fatwa of the Indonesian Ulema Council – GNPF-MUI]) and irregular (those who attended the activities sporadically). Furthermore, Aksi 212 had diverse motives, including religious and political. Aksi 212 also received funding from various sources. It is likely that Aksi 212 would follow the same strategy in 2024.

However, the context in 2024 would be different. In Pilgub Jakarta 2017, a candidate who was seen as a “threat to Islam” and believed to have committed blasphemy was contesting. Conversely, Pilpres 2024 is unlikely to see a one candidate who can be categorized as a minority from religious perspective. All candidates that have topped recent polls – namely Ganjar Pranowo, Prabowo Subianto and Anies Baswedan – are Muslims.

It would, thus, be in the group’s interest to support a candidate who is deemed “more Islamic” than the rest and also able to fulfil the group’s ideological goals. Due to their persisting interest in the election, Aksi 212 may still play up fundamentalist religious narratives to influence the democratic process.

Furthermore, the membership of Aksi 212 is projected to still be dominated by followers from various Islamic organizations that participated in its initial call for protest. These include members of GNPF-MUI; former members of Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front – FPI), which has since been banned by the government; Gerakan Reformis Islam (Islamic Reformist Movement – Garis); as well as radical groups such as Jama’ah Anshoru Syariah (JAS) and Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT).

Considering various vested interests in Pilpres 2024, Aksi 212 could potentially receive “support” from other non-religious organizations such as Forum Betawi Rakyat (Betawi Society Forum), Forum Pemuda Nasional (National Youth Forum), political parties, labour groups and former presidents, including former President Soeharto’s Cendana family.

This more relaxed and multi-interpretative goal of the Aksi 212 demonstration was what made individuals with all sorts of motivations and backgrounds feel that they can be accommodated. It is also widely known that the Aksi 212 demontration was also used for various purposes, aside from Ahok’s blasphemy case. A notable example is labour interest groups who were opposing Jokowi.  

Islamic Unity and Identity Politics as an Asset

Aksi 212’s primary agenda in Pilgub Jakarta 2017 was clearly to “defend the religion”, especially from the non-Muslim governor. For Pilpres 2024, however, its political objectives are more open-ended. To influence political contestation in 2024 and beyond, the movement may focus on the agenda of “unifying Muslims”.

However, despite sharing the same view on politics, its leaders have different opinions on the degree of participation that the movement should have in politics.

Some argue that the movement’s involvement in politics should be limited to influencing political discourse, to impart Muslim agendas in the minds of voters and political parties. Others posit that the movement should go as far as explicitly endorsing political candidates who listen to religious leaders (ulamas). Yet others maintain that the movement should aim to control the parliament by getting their candidates elected to Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR).

Such differences have splintered Aksi 212, especially its subsequent “reunion” iterations (Reuni Alumni 212), into multiple groups such as Presidium 212 and Garda 212.

Notably, Aksi 212’s reunions are more than just a ritual of religious and victory celebration over Ahok’s imprisonment, but also a political effort to maintain the agenda and spirit of Islamic unity as Pilpres 2024 approaches. The latest of such reunion was conducted on 2 December 2022 at the At-Tin mosque in East Jakarta. The reunion was attended by the former leader of FPI Habib Rizieq Shihab and Titiek Soeharto, daughter of the late former President Soeharto.

The continued presence of Aksi 212, even amidst the perception of its diminishing influence, suggests that the spectre of identity politics may continue to haunt the road towards Pilpres 2024.

There are lessons learned following the employment of identity politics in Pilgub Jakarta 2017, which bore implications to the inter-ethnic and religious relations to the Indonesian society. It became clear that the sentiment of identity is a powerful force that can influence the political capital of a candidate and discourage political opponents. Contextualizing Pilpres 2024, even though all of the presidential candidates are Muslim, there is still room for Aksi 212 to discredit them, especially if these candidates are seen as being associated to foreign interests, “defending” the interests of the religious minorities, or less committed to promote the interests of the Muslims.

For leaders of Aksi 212, Islam is now seen as a powerful modality and an “asset.” Having interviewed such elites and coordinators, the author came to understand that the alumni of Aksi 212 now have a common objective to maintain this asset by campaigning to strengthen the Muslim identity, be it in political, economic, or socio-cultural dimensions.

Politically, the movement wishes to insert more influence on the legislative process in DPR. They would attempt to ban and reject all bills perceived to be against the Islamic teaching. In elections, they would also rally against non-Muslim candidates in a predominantly Muslim community. From their perspective, a non-Muslim should not lead a dominant Muslim society.

Economically, the leaders also wish to repel the influence of “asing”, a term used to refer to foreigners or foreign investments, according to the findings of the author’s fieldwork. By uniting Muslims, the movement also wishes to build a strong Islamic economy, seeking to challenge retail shops such as Indomaret and Alfamart by establishing shops named “212 Mart” and “Kita Mart” – all managed with a sharia element.

Employing Identity Politics

The discussion above shows the persisting concern over identity politics in Indonesia’s democratic system. Despite this, there is a tendency that prospective leaders might still see identity politics as a modality to clinch victory in the contestation, regardless of the polemics or controversies attached to it. This tendency is diametrically opposed to the result of the aforementioned CSIS survey, which shows that the public do not consider the “religious orientation” of prospective leaders as particularly significant.

However, it should also be noted that the employment of identity politics does not guarantee an automatic win – it demands an appropriate tactical approach by the candidate. Identity politics is like a double-edged sword: it can both benefit and/or harm a candidate’s position. The effectiveness of identity politics is highly dependent on the existing political dynamics and the society’s socio-political attitude. There is always a possibility that a candidate might be stigmatized by voters as irresponsibly employing identity politics, which may harm their prospect. This is especially true in the context of Indonesia’s democratic environment, where pluralism remains very much in demand.

Evidence from the past few years suggest that the country is still struggling to promote democratic ideals such as pluralism, diversity and tolerance in daily life. This has become an “enabling environment” that allows an effective employment of identity politics in the country’s political system.  

For example, a CSIS survey in 2019 shows that 58.4% of respondents could not accept leaders who come from different religious backgrounds, compared to only 39.1% who could. This is supported by another CSIS survey that shows that Ahok lost in Pilgub Jakarta 2017 mainly due to his religious background (18%), not necessarily because of his blasphemous speech (17.7%).

There are also cases in the education sector whereby students are “forced” to dress in Islamic style or the tendency of growing extremism among civil servants or teachers. Cases such as these could be easily twisted and exploited to advance one’s strategy in employing identity politics.

Another contributing factor to the enabling environment is public apathy. There does not seem to be a collective or communal system in place that could respond to the growing problem of identity politics.

There are two reasons for such behavior. First, people tend to be afraid of defending the interests of minorities for fear of being ostracized, stigmatized or attacked verbally or physically by the dominant group. Second, they do not have the time to think about the issue because it has neither beneficial nor detrimental effects to their well-being. As for the elites or leaders in power, there is a fear that defending minority rights would jeoperdised their popularity among supporters. Hence, incidents of intolerance would usually only invite silence or dismissal from the public. Such context might embolden groups such as Aksi 212 to carry out its actions and strategies based on identity politics.

Additionally, there seems to be a demand for the application of Islamic values in daily life. This is supported by yet another CSIS study whereby participants demanded that “pemerintah dan masyarakat harus lebih Islami” (the government and the society must become more Islamic). Such demand has essentially contributed to the enabling environment for identity politics.

Due to these factors that contribute to the enabling environment – i.e., intolerant attitude, ignorance, imposition of and demand for Islamic values – groups such as Aksi 212 would be “free” to promote their political agenda through manipulation of religious attributes. For example, they might begin by demanding for leaders who could uphold the Islamic principles (as derived from the 1945 Constitution) and the Qur’an. They would dismiss nominal Muslim candidates who are Islam KTP (Muslims in none but their identity card).

In pursuing their agenda, there is a possibility that Aksi 212 would adjust and adapt their strategy. Even though this group seemingly gravitates towards certain presidential candidates who seem open to their agenda, they might focus more on attracting the sympathy and influencing the perception of the people so as not to hurt the image of their preferred candidates. They might especially target their supporter base which is already in line with their ideology. One effective and “safe” strategy is through mosque sermons or community gathering where a candidate could be endorsed. In addition, it is unlikely for the Aksi 212  to openly support certain candidates through posters and flyers that are exposed to the public, especially exposing the photo of particular candidate since the public has  already strongly associated Aksi 212 with identity politics. This action could harm the image of the candidate they try to support.

Their grassroots supporter base does have the power to usher a specific candidate over the finishing line, as exemplified by Anies Baswedan’s victory in Pilgub Jakarta 2017. This is why it might be constantly targeted by Aksi 212’s campaign. Thus, in the political year of 2023,  Aksi 212 might intensively socialize its chosen presidential candidate to its grassroots community. This is unlike Pilgub Jakarta 2017, whereby prominent political figures blatantly sought support and communicated with Aksi 212.

Such interaction might be conducted secretly ahead of Pilpres 2024. In the current situation, political actors  are trying to detach themselves from association with  proponents of identity politics. Labelling themselves as Pancasilais (adherents of the Pancasila state ideology) or other nationalistic behaviour such as showing loyalty towards the country could boost their positive image. Yet again, this identity-building orientation (i.e., Islam vs. nationalist) will always be fluid.

Additionally, as far as technology is concerned, the role of social media would still be crucial for Aksi 212 to organize its activity and promote its messages. Whatsapp is commonly used as communication between organizations and members but is not necessarily the primary means of persuasion (sermon in mosques is).

Other platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are similarly integral in the strategy of Aksi 212. Thus, attributes of identity politics, specifically political Islam, are likely to dominate the messaging by Aksi 212 in social media ahead of Pilpres 2024.

Concluding Note

The elements of identity politics would likely be present in 2023, a political year, ahead of Pilpres 2024, though probably with differing manifestations from the past. Politicians and their networks, including Aksi 212, would pragmatically use identity politics to increase their chance at winning elections. However, the presence identity politics would usually subside after the election since the line between identity politics and transactional politics is very thin.

Nevertheless, there are crucial questions to ponder. What other forms of identity politics will be employed in 2024? How massive and damaging the impact of such employment have on Pilpres 2024 and the nation?  

The result of CSIS’ most recent study shows that repondents still considered the employment of identity politics as a normal or “legitimate” political strategy, as long as it is not used too extremely. Ironically, preconditions that prevent the proliferation of extremist attitude tend to be challenging to foster because of the aforementioned enabling environment that limits the space for pluralism and tolerance.

The government and election-related agencies must maintain vigilance over various manifestation of identity politics so they can take preventive and mitigative actions against forms that are most detrimental. As the employment of identity politics would likely target the grassroots, educational and religious institutions, intervention efforts need to start there. Thus, there is a need to foster a “disabling environment” to minimize the proliferation of identity politics. These can be achieved through the following. First, synergy must be built among the media, government and civil society to avoid and mitigate the negative impacts of identity politics. Second, Komisi Pemilihan Umum (General Elections Commission – KPU) needs to be given more funds to create programs to make people aware of the harmful effects of identity politics in elections. Third, political education must be promoted especially in the interest of fostering an interfaith harmony. Fourth, the government must be serious in enforcing the regulation to prevent issue on ethnicity, religion, race and inter-group relations from entering political campaign. Fifth, moderate Muslims who do not necessarily align with either Nahdlatul Ulama or Muhammadiyyah must advocate for the importance of tolerance and anti-identity politics. Sixth, Islamic community organizations need to organize more interaction with the grassroots including socializing the content of religious moderation. Finally, a collaboration between news corporations and social media companies must be explored in order to combat fake news tinged with identity politics.

Part 1: Political Islam in Indonesia: Looking at Pemilu 2024 and Beyond

Part 2: Sharia Politics in 2024: Ideology or Commodity

Part 3: The Recent Decline of Interfaith Dialogue in Indonesia: Causes and Challenges

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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