How Powerful is Ethno-Religious Populism in Indonesia and Malaysia?

Thousands of anti-Ahok Muslims participate in a protest on Jl. Merdeka Timur in Jakarta on Oct. 14. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

A political strategy of mobilising those feeling increasingly insecure due to a perceived side-lining of religion and ethnicity is occurring in Malaysia and Indonesia. Centred on opposition to ‘others’, it is giving rise to concerns over the strength of polarizing narratives in these fledgling democracies.

The 212 rally in Indonesia highlighted the strength of religious narratives. Supported by several political parties, as well as the hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the 2018 reunion attracted more attendees than last year. While the committee promised to be politically neutral, Jokowi’s coalition was not represented due to his criminalisationof Ulema”, and opposition Prabowo Subianto addressed the crowd. An oath of allegiance was given to FPI leader Habib Rizieq, “Great Imam of the Islamic Ummah of Indonesia”, who argued that it is forbidden by Islamic law to vote for a president supported by political parties condoning blasphemy – referring to Jokowi.

In Malaysia, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), experienced in using religion and ethnicity, are learning from their neighbours. Prior to last year’s election UMNO called for a ‘Malay tsunami’. They since had their own gathering to protest the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s plans to ratify the ICERD (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination). Naming it Himpunan 812, the rally was supported by opponents of PH including UMNO and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and argued that PH undermine the values of Islam.

There are some symbolic linkages between 212 & 812. Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (ISMA), one of the 812 organisers,invited 212 leader Ustaz Bachtiar Nasir to speak via video call. Symbols such as the tauhid flags, uncommon in Malaysia, were seen to be inspired by 212. In Indonesia, those supporting the “change president 2019” hashtag tweeted that 212 and 812 are symbols of rising Islamic civilization. These linkages demonstrate the way in which momentum from both is used as inspiration for the other.


But why is this narrative surrounding Islamic representation being mobilised?

812 is an effective distraction from the 1MDB affair for UMNO, and ethno-religious populism seems to be their last hope of rallying support now they have lost their ability to distribute patronage and no longer need to consider their non-Malay partners. It resonates with many Malay voters, who feel increasingly insecure, and there seems to be greater fluidity of party loyalty than in Indonesia where less than 20% of people identify with a political party. 812, therefore, provides a strong focal point for shaping perceptions that the PH government is “anti-Islam” and “anti-Malay”.

212 is also being used by an opposition who are not only focused on religious sentiment, but also the economically marginalised in Jakarta. The eviction and financially burdening relocation of residents in Kampung Pulo is just one unpopular policy in a city where inequality is rising. As Ahok was perceived as close to rich elites, it was not particularly difficult to link economic marginalisation with ethnic and religious sentiments.

In Indonesia, these narratives have seen mixed success. They allowed opposition elites, such as Anies Baswedan, to access strong positions in the Jakarta administration – giving them an advantage in the 2024 Presidential elections. Where it is less successful is in the current elections, and populist strategies are not as strong as they were during the gubernatorial election. A CSIS poll showed that many who describe themselves as 212 sympathisers are also Jokowi voters – generally moderate Muslims represented by organisations such as Nahdatul Ulama (NU). Jokowi selected former chairman of Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate, who also took part in 212 and testified during Ahok’s trial. He has successfully gained support from former 212 alumni, causing a split, and counter-attacked accusations that he is not chosen by Ulema, managing to co-opt this narrative to appeal to more inclusivist Islamic supporters.

This mixed success is also reflected in Malaysia. UMNO won a significant portion of the Malay vote during the election and this narrative helped propel them to victory in the Cameron Highlands by-election. It is a tactic that PH is finding particularly difficult to counter, as Malay parties such as Bersatu are increasingly seen as too liberal due to the power-sharing within PH. They face difficulties in accommodating the interests of the non-Malay and allaying anxieties of the Malay electorate that remain wary of the coalition, meaning PH cannot co-opt these narratives. There are limitations, however. Despite continuing Malay support for UMNO, there was a strong swing to PH during the elections as they appeal to more moderate and inclusivist Muslims. This seems to have led to some degree of hedging on this strategy. Critics such as Khairy Jamaluddin said that the continuation of 812 was a mistake, and it is time to reduce the political temperature of the country. Zahid stepping down, and his replacement by technocrat and moderate Mohamad Hasan, may hark a change towards more programmatic appeals, though he has also stated UMNO is for those who will fight for and love their race.

Both democratising countries are facing challenges of how to deal with politics and narratives of race and religion in the age of social media. This was emphasised at the first Political Studies Association’s (PSA) political psychology conference held at the University of Birmingham by Helen Haste. Her keynote focused on the power of narratives in relation to populism, where she stressed that we need to understand the psychological effects that these narratives have – especially in influencing political choices and their relation to other dynamics.

Scott Edwards is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham who focuses on Malaysian and Indonesian politics and foreign policy. 

Asmiati Malik is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham
This article was originally published in BISA