Indonesian Islamic Parties at Crucial Crossroads

A boy waves an Indonesian flag during a protest by the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in front of the US embassy in Jakarta on September 30, 2012. (Reuters Photo/Beawiharta)

A boy waves an Indonesian flag during a protest by the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in front of the US embassy in Jakarta on September 30, 2012. (Reuters Photo/Beawiharta)

Two recent opinion polls caused a stir in Indonesia when they predicted that none of the major Islamic political parties would remain among the top five parties in the 2014 general election.

In a survey done last month, the Indonesian Survey Circle (LSI) painted a bleak picture for the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the National Awakening Party (PKB), the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the United Development Party (PPP).

If elections were held today, each of the four parties would garner less than 5 percent of the vote and Islamic parties collectively would gather a total of only 21.1 percent of the popular vote.

The top five are Golkar with 21 percent of the vote, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) with 17.2 percent, the Democratic Party with 14 percent, and two newer secular parties — the Gerindra party with 5.2 percent, and the newly founded National Democratic Party with 5 percent.

A separate survey by the National Survey Institute (LSN) also found that the top Islamic political party PKS would receive 4.4 percent of the vote and its colleagues PKB 2.8 percent, PAN 2.3 percent and PPP 2.2 percent.

Based on the findings of the polls, only the PKS, with 4.4 percent of the vote, would be able to retain its seats in the DPR as it crosses the new threshold of 3.5 percent of the vote, a requirement to enter Parliament.

Such a gloomy prediction for the parties rattled Islamic party politicians as they harbor ambitions to field their own candidates for the presidential election in July 2014, just three months after the legislative election.

The politicians are also upset that the LSI survey found that their leaders marked as presidential candidates such as PPP chairman Suryadharma Ali and PKS president Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq had low electability of around 2 percent.

Compare this with the more than 60 percent electability for leaders from secular parties such as Prabowo Subianto of Gerindra, Megawati Sukarnoputri of the PDI-P, and Aburizal Bakrie of Golkar.

While the Islamic party politicians may cast doubt on the reliability of the polls, the findings only confirm the decline of Islamic parties as seen in their performances in the elections.

In four elections, Islamic parties failed to receive more than 44 percent of the votes despite almost 90 percent of Indonesians being Muslim. Although Islamic parties won a combined total of 44 percent in the first general election in 1955, their electoral appeal has waned in the post-Suharto period.

In 1999, the Islamic parties won 36.3 percent of the vote, while in 2004, they got 41 percent. However by 2009, their vote dropped significantly to 29.2 percent, their worst performance since independence in 1945.

Why the slide in support for Islamic parties? And does this spell the end of political Islam?

First, voters may have less confidence in Islamic parties’ capacity to tackle national problems, where the secular nationalist parties are seen to have a better grasp.

Said Umar Bakry of the LSN: “Voters do not think that life would be better if Islamic parties were to win in the election. They have more confidence in secular parties like Golkar and Gerindra.”

Second, the performance of the parties’ representatives in Cabinet reflects their lackluster leadership.

Over the past year, voters have been aghast at the blunders of former PKS president Tifatul Sembiring, who is Communication and Information Technology Minister, and PKB chairman Muhaimin Iskandar, the Manpower and Transmigration Minister, for his failure to protect Indonesian migrant workers abroad.

Third, parties like PKS thrived because of its anti-corruption slogans during campaigning. But once they are in government, “they are not viewed publicly as being aggressive enough in addressing the country’s many cancerous scandals,” wrote analyst Donny Syofyan of Andalas University in West Sumatra.

The party has spent much time and energy to beat off the challenge from its former legislator Yusuf Supendi, who filed a report with the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) in May last year alleging that party secretary-general Anis Matta had embezzled 10 billion rupiah (US$1 million) in campaign funds.

Fourth, Islamic parties face stiff competition from secular and nationalist parties for the same constituents with the latter accommodating the voters’ Islamic aspirations. These parties have transformed themselves into secular-inclusive parties to accommodate the Islamic constituents. Voters with Islamic leanings now have a wider choice as they no longer have to depend on the Islamic parties to fight for their religious interests.

Despite waning support for Islamic parties, it is premature to say that political Islam is also in decline.

Islam still plays an influential role in Indonesian politics. Some observers see its impact as being more diffuse and subtle than before and it can no longer be regarded as the exclusive preserve of Islamic parties. All of the major non-Islamic parties combine Islamic appeals in their campaigns. This is done in response to the growing religiosity of Muslims in the country.

The influence of Islam is palpable in the enactment of laws at both the national and regional levels. Despite Islamic parties being a minority in the Indonesian Parliament, a significant number of laws promoting an Islamic or religiously conservative agenda have been passed.

For example, the controversial education bill that requires Christian schools to provide Islamic instruction for Muslim pupils in 2003 and the anti-pornography Bill in 2008 were passed by the House of Representatives (DPR), which is dominated by nationalist, secular and Pancasila-based political parties.

Local laws or peraturan daerah (perda) that are highly religious in content have also been passed by regional Parliaments dominated by non-Islamic parties.

On the issue of religious violence, there appears to be a weak response from political parties and their representatives in Parliament over the attacks on the religious minorities, such as followers of the Ahmadiyah sect and Shi’ite Muslims. Politicians avoid these issues because they carry political implications.

While Islam remains influential in Indonesian politics, the gradual decline in support for Islamic parties will have to be stemmed if party executives want their organizations to remain relevant and revitalized. These parties are now at a crucial crossroads.

Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times