VP candidate Sandiaga Uno to visit FPI leader Rizieq Shihab during pre-election pilgrimage to Mecca

Just like President Joko Widodo, vice presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno — running mate to Prabowo Subianto —  flew to Saudi Arabia yesterday to carry out the Umrah pilgrimage. According to a senior member of Prabowo’s campaign, while he’s there Sandiaga will be making a special visit to the most infamous Indonesian living in Mecca at the moment — Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

Yusuf Muhammad Martak — a member of the campaign’s steering committee and the chairman of the National Movement to Guard the Ulama Fatwa (GNPF), a prominent Islamist political action group strongly affiliated with FPI  — confirmed the plans to CNN Indonesia.

Insyaallah (God willing) they will meet,” Yusuf told the news outlet yesterday.

However, Yusuf stressed that Sandiaga’s most important agenda while in Saudi Arabia was carrying out the Umrah pilgrimage so that he could pray for the country to be safe during the election. He said the potential VP would meet with Rizieq after he had completed the religious ritual to ask the firebrand cleric for his prayers and guidance.

Prabowo has courted hardline Islamic voters this election season, with gestures such as a promise to personally fly Rizieq back to Indonesia on his private plane should he win (Rizieq first fled to Saudi Arabia to avoid arrest in an embarrassing pornography case that was eventually dropped, but he still has a number of pending criminal cases waiting for him in Indonesia).

At the same time, Prabowo has been railing against the foreign media and allegations that he is playing with identity politics to turn Indonesia into an Islamic caliphate.

Sandiaga, however, has managed to steer clear of such accusations by keeping his distance from Islamist figures, for the most part. For example, unlike Prabowo, he has not given speeches at any prominent hardliner events such as last year’s 212-anniversary (celebrating the massive hardliner led protests to the downfall of former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama).

Many believe that hardliner political groups such as GNPF were deeply disappointed that Prabowo chose Sandiaga — a Western-educated entrepreneur who has spent a significant percentage of his fortune funding their campaign — as his running as opposed to a member of one of the country’s Islam-based parties such as PKS. Rizieq supposedly shares similar sentiments himself.

Some observers have suggested that Sandiaga has tried to steer clear of associating with the likes of Rizieq because he doesn’t want the baggage if he runs for president in 2024 (which many say his current VP candidacy is basically an audition for).

But apparently, Sandiaga or, more likely, somebody else on the campaign, considered a last-minute meeting with Rizieq essential to help get out the FPI leader’s vast network of supporters among conservative Islamic voters.

We’ll see Wednesday if it makes any difference — the vast majority of recent polling says President Jokowi still has a commanding double-digit lead over Prabowo.

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