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A house for all Muslims?

A house for all Muslims?
Published: May 12, 2012

The United Development Party is determined to survive as a political force


Kikue Hamayotsu

Many rank-and-file members of the PPP are unhappy with growing elitism of the current leadership
Kikue Hamayotsu

Compared to other party congresses of recent years, the United Development Party’s (PPP) five-yearly congress (Muktamar) in July 2011 was a low-spirited and poorly organised event. While the widely-publicised opening ceremony was well-attended, most of the sessions that followed were either half empty or frequently interrupted by angry party members shouting at the executives on the podium. Chaos unfolded outside the congress venue, Bandung’s Panghegar Hotel, as a number of lower-ranking party cadres from all over the archipelago were denied entry into the hotel by overzealous security guards.

Rather than sending a positive signal of change and reform, the congress merely reinforced the perception that the PPP is a party in decline. But party elites are determined to alter this perception and are convinced that a reassertion of Islamic values, along with organisational renewal, is the key to securing the party’s future.

The decline of the PPP

At the outset of Indonesia’s democratic transition, many observers predicted that the PPP would quickly vanish from the political scene. The PPP was, after all, a creation of the authoritarian New Order regime, formed through the forced fusion of four major Islamic parties and organisations – the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) Party, the Islamic Education Movement (Perti), the Indonesian Muslim Party (Parmusi) and the Islamic Association Party (PSII).

This artificial amalgamation could have simply dissolved once the New Order’s electoral straitjacket was gone. But the party initially achieved good results. In 1999, the PPP won 10.7 per cent of the popular vote and secured 58 seats in parliament, the largest number of seats won by any religious party in the elections. Since then, popular support has waned, falling to 8.15 per cent in 2004 and 5.3 per cent in 2009. In the current parliament, the PPP has been reduced to the sixth largest party, with just 39 members sitting in the 560-member chamber.

This decline is not surprising. The PPP has been prone to rampant money politics, bitter personal conflicts, factionalism and defection – organisational failures that have highlighted the party’s limited capacity to recruit and train new dedicated leaders at all levels. If the parliamentary threshold for the 2014 election is raised to 5 per cent, as larger parties such as Golkar insist, PPP faces an uphill battle to maintain a presence in parliament. This predicament has put PPP elites under tremendous pressure to institute reform. Acknowledging the urgency, the party decided to call the five-yearly Muktamar earlier than scheduled so the party could put its house in order well before the 2014 elections.

Attempts at renewal

Arguably the key event at the congress was the election of the party chairperson. Much to the chagrin of critics from in and outside the party, incumbent leader Suryadharma Ali, the Minister of Religious Affairs since 2009, was re-elected for another term. This is surprising, given the party’s electoral decline.

Suryadharma has been a controversial figure in recent years, internally because of his failure to lift the PPP’s profile and externally because of his conservative and discriminatory attitude towards religious minorities such as the Ahmadiyah sect. Suryadharma’s call for the Ahmadiyah sect to be disbanded, widely seen as a move to bolster his otherwise relatively weak Islamic credentials, further intensified the debate about the rise of religious intolerance in Indonesia. Dismayed by the minister’s comments and their effect on Indonesia’s public image, religious leaders from NU as well as Muhammadiyah made an open appeal to the President to replace him with another non-partisan figure. In the end, the political calculus of the increasingly defensive President Yudhoyono, who relies on loyal coalition partners such as Suryadharma’s PPP for his own survival, trumped such religious considerations.

But Suryadharma hasn’t been entirely predictable in this new term. In the weeks that followed the congress, he and other newly elected party delegates made a real attempt to accelerate the regeneration of the aging party leadership in selecting the new central executive board to lead the party from 2011-2016.Only 13 of the other 54 members of the central executive board are old faces – and the rest are mostly in their 40s. 17 members, or 30 per cent, are women. Forty-nine year-old Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, the newly appointed Deputy Chair of the PPP and Deputy Speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), is a leading face of this young leadership of the future PPP. According to Lukman, nearly 90 per cent of party positions at the regional levels are also occupied by young leaders in their 40s. He also emphasises that the party wants to promote new leaders using ‘meritocratic’ criteria to discourage nepotism and money politics.

Continuing challenges

Despite these reform efforts, many party members are deeply cynical about the commitment and ability of the 56 year-old Suryadharma to renew the party, not least because the chairman has done little to dispel accusations of favoritism as he seeks to cement the dominance of his faction within the party. After the congress, Suryadharma quietly sidelined two major rivals who challenged him in the chairmanship race at the congress, Akhmad Muqowam and Ahmad Yani. It has also been alleged that Suryadharma actively interfered in and at times overturned the selection of branch executives to promote his NU faction. Some leaders claim that Suryadharma ‘is very defensive about criticism. If you criticise or annoy him, that’s it. You are done. You better stay quiet.’

Meanwhile, the appointment of his protégé and close confidant, Romahurmuziy, as Secretary-General goes against a party convention that the two top executive positions, Chairman and Secretary-General, should be shared by the traditionalist NU and modernist Parmusi factions. In the past, this arrangement has maintained a power balance between various Islamic factions within the party. The NU faction now controls the two most powerful positions as well as other influential positions. Nevertheless, Suryadharma rejects allegations of nepotism, pointing out that three out of four Deputy Chairs come from the Parmusi faction.

It may be due to this clientelistic style of making appointments that the central executive board and new positions have expanded dramatically without clarification on the nature of their roles. For example, the number of deputy chairpersons was increased from one to four. The party also created a new body, the Party Court, whose nine positions are filled by senior cadres and religious leaders. What exactly the court is supposed to do, however, was not made clear at the congress.

Organisational ambiguity and unclear divisions of responsibilities and power within the party structure have always been present in the PPP. However, the current party initiatives to regenerate the party leadership in the name of party consolidation may trigger a serious backlash within the party if seen as only benefitting a faction closely affiliated with the chairman. But given that the PPP – and Indonesian politics in general – remains based on clientelistic relations, it is not likely this vicious cycle of patronage politics will end in the foreseeable future.

A religious awakening?

At the ideological level, the PPP has pledged its commitment to Islam and reasserted its collective identity as an Islamic party. In the lead-up to the congress, it launched a new party vision, ‘Rumah Besar Umat Islam’ (The Islamic People’s House). This slogan represents the party’s aspiration to accommodate a wide spectrum of Muslim communities and defend Indonesia’s moderate Islamic heritage. The PPP’s Islam is locally rooted and differs from ‘Middle-Eastern’ variants of Islam favoured by the PKS and other more radical groups. As Lukman Hakim explains, it is this ‘universalistic Islam’ that the PPP wishes to uphold in multi-religious Indonesia. This approach, he argues, is more inclusive and recognises universal values such as human rights and equality. It is also hoped to be instrumental in bringing a wide spectrum of Muslim constituencies together into the PPP’s fold.

The PPP’s reassertion of its Islamic identity goes hand in hand with its other survival strategy: recruiting more religious leaders into leadership positions at the grassroots in order to cultivate rural constituencies, especially in NU-dominated rural Java. At the Bandung congress, the PPP convened an assembly for religious leaders (ulama) from all over the archipelago and announced the formation of Syariah Councils at the provincial and district levels. Moreover, the party is trying to woo NU elites such as the former Chairman of NU, KH Hasyim Muzadi, and KH Syukron Ma’mun of the United NU Party (PPNUI) back into PPP, taking advantage of the fading fortunes of the National Awakening Party (PKB) and other religious parties connected with NU.

Suryadharma is in a strategically advantageous position to mobilise religious leaders and institutions, having served as Minister of Religious Affairs in the second Yudhoyono cabinet since 2009. Despite widespread criticism about his controversial remarks and his overall performance as a minister, he has managed to retain this position after the cabinet reshuffle in October 2011. Ever since assuming his cabinet post in one of Indonesia’s largest ministries, Suryadharma has utilised the privileges and patronage associated with this position to advance his and his party’s interests, especially those of the NU faction. Indeed, according to some government leaders and Indonesian observers, the ministry under Suryadharma is aggressively promoting NU (and Suryadharma’s own) interests, appointing and promoting individuals close to NU with the primary goal of extending state patronage to NU constituencies.

Prospects for 2014

Whether all these efforts will be enough to turn the party’s electoral fortunes around in the 2014 election remains to be seen. There can be little doubt that PPP elites are at least aware of the seriousness of the situation and they are determined to do whatever it takes to achieve political survival. But the growing dominance of Suryadharma and his faction within the party – along with his political use of the state apparatus and religious populism to build his own support base – are worrying signs for many observers, both inside and outside the party.

The PPP’s new vision, ‘Rumah Besar Umat Islam’, which represents a commitment to uphold moderate and inclusive Islam, is a positive and strategic way to change the party’s old and dull image. However, serious doubts remain as to whether the current party leadership is really prepared to put the ideas behind this vision into practice. In particular, the party chairman’s inclination to fuel rather than contain religious intolerance makes the slogan sound like an empty promise. It is hard to see how, in the absence of serious commitment,the PPP will attract a new generation of pious and politically ambitious Muslim men and women.

Kikue Hamayotsu (khamayotsu@niu.edu) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University.


Inside Indonesia 108: Apr-Jun 2012

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