ISLAMIC PARTIES MAY BE BIG LOSERS IN INDONESIAN ELECTIONS
by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 27, 2004 -- Indonesia has seen the Bali bombing, the defeat of an Islamic party in neighboring Malaysia and the rise of Islamic militancy across southeast Asia, but voters in this world's largest Muslim country are very unlikely to give much SUPPORT to Islamic parties in next week's parliamentary elections.
The reasons are complicated, but a deeper look into the history of Islamic movement in Indonesia shows that despite the growing global perception of increased politicization of Islam in Indonesia, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and the Oct. 12, 2002, bombing in Bali, the importance of Islamic parties here has substantially decreased.
"Since the 1950s the attractiveness of Islamic parties here has shown incompatibility with the huge number of the Muslim population," said Hamid Basyaib, a researcher at the Aksara Foundation in Jakarta, adding that in Indonesia's first democratic election in 1955, Islamic parties gained 42 percent of the votes; nationalists, including some communists, won the election.
But after three decades of totalitarian rule under President Suharto, when elections were tailored to fit his political moods, a second democratic election held in 1999 produced sharply different results. Islamic parties, defined as those which use Islam and the Islmaic legal system known as sharia as their political ideology, garnered only 14 percent of the vote. It was a huge reduction from their 1955 tally, and has called into question how influential the Islamic parties will be next week.
After three decades of authoritarian rule under Suharto between 1965 and 1998, Indonesia - the fourth largest nation in the world, with its population spread over more than 1,100 islands - is an emerging democracy watched with care by Western observers who fear the viral spread of Islamic fundamentalism into the strategic nation's vast Muslim population.
But poll results and analysts like Basyaib predict that the next election will show a similar pattern. Big parties such as President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDIP) and the Golkar Party, both considered to be secular parties, are set to gain many new voters, while the newer Nation Awakening Party (PKB) and the National Mandate Party (PAN), which are officially secular parties but have strong Muslim bases, will also get a big chunk of the votes.
But the official Islamic parties may not do as well. The three biggest Islamic parties, the United Development Party (PPP), the Crescent Star Party (PBB), and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), as well as smaller ones, may get less than 20 percent of the combined Islamic vote. "PKS might increase their votes due to the clean image that they have. PPP might gain less than in 1999 due to internal bickering," said Basyaib.
Indonesia has a population of 220 million, of which 85 percent, or about 197 million - are Muslims. In the 1950s, it was common to see Islamic parties advance the notion that Muslims should vote only for "partai Islam." Many clerics underlined that approach by saying that Islamic votes were related to voters' "afterlife in heaven."
In the 1970s, however, prominent Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid launched the slogan "Islam yes, Islamic parties no." The slogan became hugely popular and was seen as liberating Muslim voters to separate their religion and their political affiliation. Indonesian Muslims have since become more at ease in voting for secular parties.
What are the prospects next week? According to a survey by the International Republican Institute last December, members of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, are very likely to vote for PKB, which is led by former president Abdurrahman Wahid. PKB is closely related to NU, whose membership is estimated at 35 million.
Members of the Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second largest Muslim group, are very likely to vote for PAN, which is led by Amien Rais, the speaker of Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly. Amien, himself a presidential candidate, used to head the Muhammadiyah, whose members number an estimated 30 million Muslims.
Both PKB and PAN claim to be non-Islamic parties and nominated many non-Muslims to be their parliamentary candidates. The PKB, for instance, named Bara Hasibuan, who was once a U.S. Congressional Fellow, is a Christian from northern Sumatra, traditionally a Christian enclave in western Indonesia, as its candidate in the area. Wahid is also an ardent advocate of religious tolerance.
The survey also revealed that the majority of other Muslims are likely to vote either for the Golkar Party (26 percent) or PDIP (19 percent). Non-Muslims, who are mostly Christians, especially in eastern Indonesia, but also include smaller proportions of Buddhists and Hindus, are more likely to vote either for PDIP (37 percent) and Golkar Party (27 percent).
Malaysia's largest Islamic party, Partai Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), lost the state elections in Terengganu in the March 21 election. The fortunes of this Islamic party, which won control of the Terengganu state legislature four years ago and traditionally controls Kelantan, were being closely watched as a barometer of militant Islam in Southeast Asia. Since taking control in Terengganu, the Islamic party, popularly known as PAS, has imposed religious laws, including bans on alcohol and gambling.
Indonesians will vote for their local members of parliament on April 5, and 24 political parties will participate. The election will be a three-step process. A presidential election will be held in July, and if no candidate has won more than 50 percent of the vote, which is very likely, a final presidential election will be held in September.
Researcher Saiful Mujani of the Jakarta-based think tank Freedom Institute said that Islamic parties are losing popularity in Indonesia due to their inability to accommodate modern life. Indonesia has seen a change in political culture among Muslim voters. Islam is not a marketable political commodity among Indonesian voters, he says.
"Muslim voters can easily distinguish Islam as a religion from the Islamic parties fighting for political influence. Most voters support those parties with secular platforms due to the changing culture," The Jakarta Post quoted him as saying.
Interestingly, this trend also prompted Islamic parties to address "Islamic issues" with caution. They rarely campaign on fuzzy sharia issues. Most of them do not openly advocate for polygamy - a practice still tolerated in some Islamic corners. PKS even proportionally topped the list of the political parties in terms of putting women as parliamentarian candidates.
Veteran Indonesia correspondent Andreas Harsono is based in Jakarta. He was a 1999-2000 Nieman International Fellow at Harvard University and has contributed to The American Reporter since 1996.