Francis Chan, Jakarta – Self-exiled Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab has been warned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs against making further comments about Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, after he accused Indonesia's top diplomat of being less than impartial over the upcoming presidential election.
The reproach comes after Mr Rizieq said in an online video that Ms Retno had "threatened the freedom" of Indonesian missions and its diplomats during her visit to Saudi Arabia last month.
Specifically, he claimed in the four-minute clip that Ms Retno, a career diplomat with no ties to any political party, had pressured Foreign Affairs Ministry officials posted in Saudi Arabia to vote for a certain pair of presidential candidates, reported state news agency Antara yesterday.
Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir said: "The video is not right... Madam Foreign Minister has always stressed to all our representatives abroad to be neutral."
The video started circulating over messaging services WhatsApp and Telegram following Ms Retno's visit to Jeddah on March 4.
Mr Muhammad Iqbal, the Foreign Affairs Ministry's director for citizen protection who accompanied Ms Retno on the trip, also came to her defence, saying: "I was beside the Minister of Foreign Affairs during the visit and there was not a single statement from the minister... regarding the support of any one of the candidates."
Mr Rizieq gained notoriety for staging one of the largest street protests in Indonesia during a divisive gubernatorial election in 2017, which was marred by racial and religious tensions and led to the ouster of former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama.
The leader of the hardline Front Pembela Islam (FPI) is currently in self-exile in Saudi Arabia after fleeing Indonesia to avoid police questioning in connection with a pornography investigation. In his latest video, the cleric also called on supporters of presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Sandiaga Uno to "fight all forms of elections fraud".
The candidates are up against President Joko Widodo and his vice-presidential pick Ma'ruf Amin, who are backed by the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), in the April 17 polls.
A similar allegation of election bias was made recently against a senior police official in West Java. Adjunct Commissioner Sulman Azis had initially claimed that his superior, Garut regency police chief Budi Satria Wiguna, ordered him to help garner votes for Mr Joko.
Commissioner Sulman later clarified that his comments were misunderstood.
Mr Joko, responding to the issue, said he has always demanded that the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) and police remain neutral in political matters.
"This has been made very clear, there is no need for me to repeat it over and over again," the President told reporters while campaigning in West Papua on Monday.
The Garut incident has rehashed old arguments of whether the law that bans active-duty TNI and police personnel from voting and being involved in politics should be amended.