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Indonesia's Presidential Race Shows Islamic Fundamentalism Is Gaining Traction


The presidential race in Indonesia has laid bare this fact. Islamic fundamentalism is gaining traction in the world's most populous Muslim country. The current president is expected to win re-election tomorrow. But as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports, he's struggled against a growing movement.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The closing rally of the campaign showcased some of Indonesia's biggest musical talent, but it was the president who got the rock star reception.


JOKO WIDODO: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Nearly 100,000 people roared their approval as the president called out to the provinces. "Sunda, Java, Aceh - how are you doing?" It was a nod to unity at a time when this vast country of 265 million people is challenged by rising and divisive religious fundamentalism. As he pressed for harmony, President Joko Widodo - or Jokowi, as he's popularly known - also touted his common man roots, especially attractive to Indonesia's large pool of young voters.


WIDODO: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "You will cast your vote to determine the future of Indonesia," the 57-year-old Jokowi told the crowd. "Choose a leader who's from the people and who places the people No. 1." Jokowi's own ascent from furniture maker to president is a sort of political fairy tale for Indonesia's young democracy that began with the toppling of President Suharto in 1998.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Prabowo. Prabowo. Prabowo.

MCCARTHY: By contrast, Jokowi's challenger is from the privileged old guard. Prabowo Subianto is a former son-in-law of the late Suharto and a former military general accused of human rights abuses. But he's never faced trial. And the lawyer's alliance he addressed this night cheered him on, admiring his firmness.


PRABOWO SUBIANTO: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "We must embrace all people," Prabowo says, "and welcome different points of view, not hating each other." The 67-year-old former military man said he'd negotiate with everyone. As Islamic fundamentalists gained clout during the campaign, Prabowo courted some of the most extreme parties. Dewi Fortuna Anwar with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences says that the democratic evolution in Indonesia has opened up the political space for fundamentalists.

DEWI FORTUNA ANWAR: Islam is a reality in Indonesia. It is the religion of the majority of Indonesian people, and there has been a growing trend of greater Islamization and religious piety. Religious extremism has also made its way here.

MCCARTHY: But analyst Philips Vermonte insists that nothing has fundamentally changed.

PHILIPS VERMONTE: We have harmonious villages, you know? Of course, there are one, two cases that show the opposite. But in general, we are a moderate country.

MCCARTHY: But President Jokowi's own choice for a running mate shocked even his most ardent supporters. He put a cleric on the ticket, someone known for his hardline views on such things as LGBT rights. Human Rights Watch says that the president's election raises questions about his commitment to human rights protection for all. But banker and supporter Donny Donoseputro says that decision helps Jokowi shut down allegations that he's not Islamic enough.

DONNY DONOSEPUTRO: That is a move that needs to be appreciated. He has to do what he has to do.

MCCARTHY: The inclusion of a conservative cleric on the ticket may deepen Islamic support for Jokowi. But should he win a second term, he faces the daunting task of balancing an increasing Islamization with his more secular goals of building roads and strengthening his country's young workforce. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Jakarta.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAIO SONG, "SISTER OF PEARL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
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