Galih Gumelar, Jakarta – When President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo tapped Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) chairman Ma'ruf Amin as his running mate in the 2019 presidential election, the motivation was clear from the beginning: He picked a politician who had strong Islamist credentials and could appeal directly to a majority of the Muslim population.
As the country is battling COVID-19, President Jokowi has given the Vice President the authority to deal with all things pertaining to religion in the fight against the pandemic.
So it was par for the course when, during a Cabinet meeting last week, Ma'ruf requested that fresh funds be earmarked for pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) before these institutions reopen.
The septuagenarian said the funding was needed for disinfecting faculties at Islamic boarding schools, improving their sanitation and conducting rapid tests on students before they go back to class.
"Islamic schools with boarding facilities are safer in the context of COVID-19. In schools where they don't have boarding facilities, students can freely go in and out," Ma'ruf said as quoted by news wire Antara.
In late May, when the government was concerned that large congregations of Muslims celebrating Idul Fitri could lead to a spike in coronavirus cases, President Jokowi tapped Ma'ruf to deliver a statement urging Muslims not to conduct Idul Fitri prayers in mosques or on open soccer fields.
Also, when the government decided to cancel this year's haj due to COVID-19, Ma'ruf became the spokesperson to respond to concerns from thousands of Muslims in the country who feared they could lose their only chance to travel to the Holy Land.
Ma'ruf, however, has kept a low profile in government public relations, prompting many to question his presence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In February, a public opinion poll conducted by Jakarta-based pollster Indo Barometer found that 50.4 percent of around 1,200 respondents were not satisfied with Maruf's performance during his first three months in office.
The public's doubts about Maruf's role in the administration only grew larger during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the hashtag #MarufAminNgapain (What is Ma'ruf Amin doing?) becoming a trending topic on Twitter on March 11, one week after President Jokowi announced Indonesia's first COVID-19 cases.
In social media, many poke fun at Ma'ruf over his perceived absence to this day. "Work is hard, but if I don't work people will think I am Ma'ruf Amin," Twitter user Feby wrote using her handle @abcdefby.
Responding to that criticism, vice presidential spokesman Masduki Baidlowi said Ma'ruf had been hard at work and, just like any other government official today, continued to work from home and regularly held online meetings with government ministers and other officials.
In recent days, Masduki said, the Vice President had returned to work at his office in the State Palace and had joined the Friday prayer at the Baiturrahman Mosque inside the premises last Friday.
"We have to admit that the Vice President has rarely made public appearances, especially during the pandemic, but that is because he has been working every day from morning to afternoon and actively chairing coordination meetings to craft policies to mitigate the impact of COVID-19," Masduki told The Jakarta Post.
In recent weeks, Ma'ruf has upped his game in public relations with regard to COVID-19 policies, by couching more and more of his messages in religious terms.
Speaking to reporters, Ma'ruf said that during the pandemic Muslims in the country could seek solace in faith by promoting the principles of iman (faith), imun (immunity), aman (Safety) and Amin (Amen).
On the issue of policies, Ma'ruf has continued to tout massive testing, social distancing and intensive treatment of COVID-19 patients as the key areas for the government to focus on. He added that the government would prepare a list of regulations aimed at revitalizing the sharia finance business, which may have suffered because of the pandemic.
"The Vice President is a simple man. He keeps working and won't have problems with people continuing to judge his performance," Masduki said. "He doesn't go after popularity and did not hire a buzzer to improve his standing in social media," he said.
Indonesia Political Review executive director Ujang Komarudin said the public had unrealistic expectations of Ma'ruf by comparing him with his predecessor, Jusuf Kalla, who was not only more outspoken but also known for his hands-on approach.
Kalla, having served in the past as chairman of the Golkar Party, as a coordinating minister in former president Megawati Soekarnoputri's Cabinet and as vice president to president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Jokowi, is a looming figure in national politics.
During his five-year tenure with President Jokowi, Kalla would often weigh in on current issues, even some that did not directly concern his office.Ma'ruf was mainly known as an Islamic cleric before entering politics, and his most prominent position was the MUI chairmanship.
Paramadina University political communication expert Hendri Satrio said the public should not be too harsh in its judgement of Maruf, simply because President Jokowi himself appeared to have no problem with Maruf's performance – so far.
It is also likely that the public would continue to criticize Ma'ruf even if he would become more popular than the President, as this could be seen as an indication of a conflictual relationship.
"My analysis is that the Vice President always gives thorough statements [to the media] about religious affairs, an aspect that is rarely addressed by the President. Therefore, I think both the President and the Vice President continue to closely work together and each speaks to the media based on their [respective] strong suit" Hendri said.