Banners bearing sentences of hatred against an ethnic group spread across the corners of Paloh City, Johor state, Malaysia, in February 2022. The banners were increasingly gaining attention because they targeted politicians from the Democratic Action Party. This party gains a support base of Chinese and Indian descent ethnic groups. One of them is Sheikh Umar Ali. “The banners were placed in the Malay area. There were even more of them in the area where I competed,” said Umar, telling his experience of nominating for the Johor legislative seat in an online interview on Friday, June 17, 2022.
This is not the only time that Umar has been attacked by a black campaign. During his campaign, starting last January, he often received threats in the form of labeling of identities. The threats appeared in outdoor media such as banners, as well as in social media and news websites. “I think those are all labels given by political enemies,” he said.
One of the narratives that is often addressed to him is that he has given up Islam to became a Chinese stooge. “I am considered a Muslim who turns into a communist because I am in a Chinese-dominated party,” he continued. In fact, according to Umar, his party has a socialist democratic principle that emphasizes ethnic equality, rights, and social justice.
In Johor, Paloh is an area with a majority Malay population, which accounts for 47 percent of the entire population. Meanwhile, the ethnic Chinese population in the area was recorded as 37 percent, the Indians were around 15 percent, and the others were 1 percent.
In the last election, more than 25,000 votes in the state were contested by four candidates. Lee Ting Han got the majority of the votes with 8,077 or the equivalent of 55.05 percent. Sheik Umar Ali was in second place with 4,901 votes (33.41 percent), Selvendran Velu from the All-Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) secured 1,512 votes (10.31 percent), and Aminuddin Johari from the Homeland Fighters Party gained only 181 votes (1.23 percent). According to the calculation of the local General Elections Commission, the total number of voters who exercised their political rights was 15,176 or equivalent to 58.76 percent of the total votes in Paloh.
This sentiment of identity, said Umar, greatly influenced the vote. “Of course, there were attacks, and [it was considered as normal and certain because] it went on and on. In fact, it would be ‘extraordinary’ if there was no attack,” Umar said.
Yusmadi Yusoff has also experienced a similar attack. This politician from the People’s Justice Party (PKR) said that identity politics in Malaysia keeps resurging and repeating itself. In 2008, Yusmandi was attacked by his political opponents during the election in Balik Pulau, Penang. He and his party are considered a threat to the existence of ethnic Malays. “There is manipulation to influence voters by using the approach of identity politics,” said a former member of the Malaysian People’s Council to Jaring.id when contacted by telephone, Monday, June 13, 2022.
PKR is a party founded by opposition groups, Anwar Ibrahim and Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. The existence of the party is inseparable from the merger of the National Justice Party and the Malaysian People’s Party on August 3, 2002. Therefore, according to Yusmadi, the attack against PKR was highly organized.
One of them is a movement that combines Malay-based community organizations and political parties. This group always tends to build identity claims between the indigenous and non-indigenous, forming exclusive alliances based on ethnicity, religion and race. They launched their actions through various social media platforms, such as TikTok and Facebook. “Political parties joining the elections then sit together to bring down other parties of various groups. The wave proved to be successful and became a strong movement,” he said.
Yusmadi said that the widespread use of identity politics in Malaysia is the result of the general election regulations. He said that there was no single regulation that prohibited the use of identity as a political weapon. The Electoral Commission of Malaysia has never mitigated this action. “My experience is that the election commission does not demonstrate any approach and attention to this issue. The commission does not have law enforcement when it comes to responding to identity issues,” said Yusmadi.
So far, cases of attacks related to ethnicity, religion and race in Malaysia have been addressed using the General Criminal Act. However, said Yusmadi, the judicial process takes a long time. Therefore, he suggested that the election commission immediately establish a special regulation that prohibits the use of identity in political campaigns. “Election ethics have not been established in the form of policy. In Malaysia, many cases go to court,” he said.
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Unlike Malaysia, Indonesia already has regulations that prohibit the use of identity politics. The prohibition is stipulated by the Law Number 7 of 2017 concerning General Elections and Law Number 16 of 2016 concerning Regional Head Elections. However, identity politics in Indonesia has not practically disappeared. This ‘movement’ seems to always find its way to resurge. Even the polarization due to the elections in 2017 and the Presidential Election in 2019 has unleashed a series of violence.
The results of a research by Setara Institute in relation to Freedom of Religion and Belief (KKB) in 2020 recorded that there were as many as 32 cases associated to reporting blasphemy of religion, 17 cases of rejection of the establishment of worship places, 8 cases of violations of religious activities, 6 cases of destruction of worship places, 5 cases of rejection of worship activities, and 5 cases of violence.
West Java became the area that contributed the most cases with 39 incidents, followed by East Java (23), Aceh (18), Jakarta (12), and Central Java (12). Four regions in the Java Island are home to the largest permanent voters in Indonesia in the 2019 presidential election. These regions are West Java (33,276,905 voters), East Java (30,912,994 voters), Central Java (27,896,902), and Jakarta (7,7761,598). Meanwhile, Aceh has 3,523,774 voters in the election.
The Research Director of the Setara Institute, Halili Hasan, stated that political celebrations, like elections, at the regional and national levels often increase intolerance. This is because political parties, said Halili, often try to gather votes by raising certain religious and ethnic sentiments. “This anti-minority sentiment is often used by politicians or political actors who are competing in an electoral event,” Halili told Jaring.id on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, online.
In relation to this social intolerance, there was another research conducted by researcher and lecturer at Yale-NUS College, Singapore, Risa J. Toha, which is worth highlighting. The research, titled the Normalization of Intolerance in Indonesia: A Case Study of the 2019 Presidential Election, found that people’s attitudes of intolerance were influenced by two factors, namely political and social factors. According to Risa, intolerance is more socially acceptable because it is influenced by politicians or candidates who practice intolerance. “In general, it is driven by social and political factors,” she said when delivering the survey results at the 5th Reading in Social Sciences online seminar held by the Paramadina Center for Religion and Democracy Studies on May 27, 2022.
In the 2019 presidential election, President Joko Widodo was paired with Ma’ruf Amin. The parties supporting this couple include the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), the National Awakening Party (PKB), the Golkar Party, the National Democratic Party (Nasdem), the United Development Party (PPP), the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura), the Indonesian Solidarity Party (PSI), and the Indonesian Justice and Unity Party (PKPI). Meanwhile, the opposing camp is Prabowo Subianto-Sandiaga Uno, who is supported by a coalition of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), the Democratic Party (Demokrat), the National Mandate Party (PAN), and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).
Risa held an online survey involving about 1200 people in early April 2019. She divided participants into three groups to answer questions for 10-15 minutes. “This survey is not representative, but it is adequate. At least, it gives us information that we can learn from,” said Risa.
As a result, 946 participants expressed intolerance towards non-Muslim leadership. As many as 639 participants were against non-Javanese leaders and 1018 participants said they did not want any Chinese-descent political leaders. “When the candidate’s state clearly supports an intolerant attitude, there will be a normalization effect of intolerance [among the supporters],” she said.
“If they are Prabowo supporters, they will express more intolerance towards leaders from non-Muslim groups. Meanwhile, the same thing does not happen to Jokowi supporters, but respondents who support Jokowi will more often express intolerant opinions of leaders from groups of Indonesian Chinese descent,” she continued.
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As a result, according to Risa, the polarization caused by the election in Indonesia has made voters even more intolerant. “Voters will articulate an attitude that fits the political stance they see. This also seems to make Indonesian voters more comfortable with intolerant opinions [and consider it as normal],” she explained.
Therefore, imposing strict sanctions for politicians who use identity as campaign material to gain public support are considered as a solution. Party officials are also encouraged to commit to not using political approaches that involve ethnicity, religion and race in the midst of increased the intensity of communication between political parties to build coalitions ahead of the 2024 Presidential Election.
Addressing social intolerance in this matter has become even more urgent since the 2019 presidential election, when the public has been divided because of political choices. The polarization continues to strengthen until now even though the 2019 presidential election has long ended. Halili hopes that society will no longer consider intolerant attitudes as normal. “To deter the political elites, I think law enforcement will be the most effective solution to control the behavior of electoral contestants,” said Halili.
Two years before the 2024 presidential election, political party officials are starting to explore establishing a coalition. Awareness to stop the division of society has also been initiated by several political party elites. Among others, by the Golkar Party, the National Mandate Party, and the United Development Party who want to form the United Indonesia Coalition (KIB).
The general chairman of PAN, Zulkifli Hasan, claims that all parties that have joined the coalition have committed not to use identity politics in the implementation of the regional and presidential elections in 2024. This is stated in the collective agreement of the three leaders of political parties holding a meeting on Thursday, May 12, 2022. “The goal is to eliminate identity politics,” said Zulkifli at the KIB national gathering in the Gelora Bung Karno area, Jakarta on Saturday, June 4, 2022.
Zulkifli, who was recently appointed by President Jokowi to be the Trade Minister, is also aware that the 2019 political contest has left polarization among the society. “We will end the dispute. Let’s love each other and eliminate the feelings of insulting and hatred. That’s an idea that we will build together with Golkar, PPP, and the National Mandate Party,” he said.
The general chairman of the Golkar Party, Airlangga Hartarto, shared the same opinion. According to him, Golkar will prioritize the politics of unity in all stages of the election. “We have put an end to identity politics that creates sharp polarization. Such attitude can tear the unity of our nationality,” said Airlangga at Hutan Kota by Plataran in Jakarta on Saturday, June 4, 2022.
Meanwhile, member of Commission II of the House of Representatives, Guspardi Gaus, said that the commitment of political parties would not be enough without the efforts of the General Elections Commission (KPU). According to him, election organizers must also be committed to implementing political education for the voters. “Everything has been regulated in the law, what needs to be done is disseminating the law and how to put it into practice, not simply rhetoric,” said Guspardi to Jaring.id when contacted by telephone on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.
He also asked the police to take firm action against anyone who deliberately uses identity politics. This PAN politician also encouraged law enforcement officers not to be selective and to act professionally. “The police should be able to deal with this (identity politics). We must create a harmonious and conducive atmosphere, and not bring up something counterproductive. Therefore, persuasive actions are also needed. If not, we can take preventive measures and enforce the law,” he said.
Responding to this, the Chairperson of the KPU, Hasyim Asy’ari said that his institution could not prevent the use of identity politics, especially in the realm of social media. “Once again, the KPU has limitations. The KPU cannot reach all people,” he said when met in his office at the KPU on Monday, June 6, 2022.
Hasyim explained that his institution could only reach out to cases that occurred during the election stage. Apart from that, he said, the perpetrators could be prosecuted using the General Code of Criminal Law or other regulations that prohibit intolerance actions involving ethnicity, religions and race. “In the situation before entering the campaign stage, make sure there are ordinary Criminal Law instruments. For example, if someone insults another person, it will be processed using a general crime. If there is a violation of threatening people, forcing people, slandering people, those are the provisions in the Criminal Law,” he concluded.
Even so, the KPU stated that it has built cooperation with religious leaders, community organizations, and several networks that have great influence in educating the public to be politically literate. “This includes inviting journalists, campuses, educational institutions, to enable us to collaborate. We want to build a peaceful democracy,” said Hasyim.
The KPU also asks political parties and parties contesting the 2024 Election to comply with the provisions of the Election Law and the Pilkada Law. Without the commitment of political parties, Hasyim is not sure that identity politics will disappear from the 2024 election. “If there is a mutual agreement, then there must be a commitment to obey it. Nobody should not use the opponent’s disgrace. Nobody should not attack the opponent. Elections must respect differences, opinions, and politics. Mutual respect for differences is the basis of substantive democracy,” he said.
In relation to this, the National Police has prepared a task force that focuses on intensifying literacy and outreach activities, as well as being a reminder if certain groups spread polarizing contents, identity politics, and hoaxes. The Head of the Indonesian National Police (Kapolri) General Listyo Sigit Prabowo stated that the synergy and solidity of all parties, from the National Military and the National Police (TNI and Polri), the Regional Leadership Coordination Forum (Forkopimda), the media, to the community, are all strong assets to maintain national security stability ahead of the 2024 General Election.
“We carry this out to prevent polarization that will divide the unity of the nation. Polarization usually arises because of the use of identity politics during elections,” Listyo said at a press conference at the National Police Headquarters on Tuesday, June 21, 2022.