Jun 16, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Front stage with the PKS

Front stage with the PKS

At its upmarket congress, Indonesia’s biggest Islamic party tried but failed to convince it has become an open and inclusive party

Greg Fealy

   PKS delegates present a united front
   Image courtesy of PKS

Indonesia’s largest Islamic party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), held its five-yearly national conference, or Munas, on 17-20 June 2010. It was, by any measure, a gala occasion. Held in one of Jakarta’s most expensive and exclusive hotels, the Ritz-Carlton at Pacific Place, it was attended by some 4000 delegates and party members. The munas was opened with great fanfare by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with leaders from most major political parties also in attendance. There were numerous cultural events and large public seminars addressed by foreign ambassadors and a range of Muslim and non-Muslim academics from Indonesia and abroad. The party’s new slogan of ‘PKS for All’ was launched and officials extolled PKS’s ‘open’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘transparent’ nature at every opportunity.

The climax of the conference was the closing ceremony, which was given the full Hollywood treatment. A pair of male and female MCs in formal attire hosted the event, presenting an effusive commentary about the ‘great’ program of entertainment and extolling PKS’s achievements. There was an elaborate light show, swirling smoke on stage, a string of musical performances, a light-hearted theatrical rendition of PKS’s origins as a campus outreach movement and the presentation of awards to branches and cadres (with recipients from Papua and other predominantly non-Muslim areas in Indonesia’s east being singled out for extra applause). The occasion was topped off by the swearing in of the party’s new leadership.

Despite the carefully produced pageantry and professions of ‘openness’, the munas was remarkable for its closed, almost secretive, conduct of internal discussions dealing with party strategy, leadership and ideology. Party officials prevented observers and journalists from having access to these sessions. They also failed to make available any of the policy and strategy materials prepared for delegates. The only official indication of what transpired behind closed doors came in tightly managed press conferences given by senior party leaders. More than with any other contemporary Indonesian party, PKS has created a boundary between its public or ‘outer’ image and its behind-the-scenes or ‘inner’ thinking and activities. Hence the reference to being ‘front stage’ with the PKS is not only literal but also metaphorical. The real story of the munas is the seeming contradiction between its external and internal dimensions.

Moving to the centre

The munas represented the latest phase of PKS’s rebranding of itself as a mainstream party, in contrast to its long-standing though not entirely accurate public image as a narrowly based, doctrinaire Islamist party. The party’s origins lay in the campus-based Tarbiyah movement which emerged in the early 1980s on Indonesian campuses with a new paradigm of Muslim activism.

Inspired by the example and teachings of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Tarbiyah activists sought to create a new kind of Islamic society and state which would have at its core pious, disciplined and professionally successful Muslims committed to bringing Islamic values to bear on every aspect of life and politics. The Tarbiyah movement was organised into tightly knit cells, called usrah, which were the crucibles for moulding ‘total’ (kafaah) Muslims. For most of its first two decades, the Tarbiyah movement was cautiously apolitical and avoided raising the suspicions of the Suharto regime’s security services. Only in early 1998, when the regime was beginning to teeter, did Tarbiyah activists become politically active, forming the KAMMI student movement which played an important role in the anti-Suharto protests of that year.

Shortly after Suharto’s regime collapsed in May 1998, the Tarbiyah activists formed the Justice Party (PK) as their electoral vehicle. In the 1999 elections they gained 1.4 per cent of the vote and seven seats in parliament. Having failed to meet the two per cent threshold to contest the next elections, PK renamed itself PKS in 2003, but kept the same core leadership group. The 2004 elections brought success beyond the dreams of most party members: the PKS vote jumped to 7.3 per cent, securing it 45 national parliamentary seats. Party leaders had predicted another large increase in PKS support in the 2009 general election, but were disappointed that its vote only rose slightly to 7.8 per cent, giving it 52 seats in the national legislature.

Since PKS’s formation in 2003, the party has pursued a strategy of attracting voters in the middle of the political spectrum, rather than relying on its core constituency in the Islamist right. One of the conclusions of party leaders following its low vote in 1999 was that growth and expansion of power depended on downplaying religious agendas and emphasising matters of general appeal, such as upholding high moral standards, providing community services and pressing for political reform and socio-economic equality. Thus, the party’s 2004 slogan was ‘clean and caring’, which was expanded in 2009 to ‘clean, caring and professional’. In 2008, PKS stated that it was a ‘religious nationalist’ party and not an Islamist party. Its new platform quietly dispensed with previous long-term plans for an Islamic state and declared the current Pancasila-based unitary state to be final. The 2010 munas was intended to further elaborate on this rebranding of the party.

‘PKS For All’

Throughout the munas, most PKS leaders kept closely to script. Most official speeches in the congress emphasised the party’s ‘openness’, its ‘plural’ nature and its ‘nationalism’. Party leaders cast PKS as an integral part of Indonesian society and as being able to accommodate and represent the diverse religious and cultural elements of Indonesian society, without denying its own strongly Islamic identity. The capstone of this effort was the party’s new ‘PKS For All’ slogan, seemingly lifted from ‘PAS For All’, the recent election catchcry of the major Malaysian Islamist party.

   A five star conference opens in style
   Image courtesy of PKS

The exception to this ‘stay-on-message’ approach was the speech of KH Hilmi Aminuddin, the party’s most powerful figure and chair of its paramount decision-making body, the Majelis Syuro (Religious Advisory Council). Ustad Hilmi, as he is widely known, spoke eloquently on PKS’s inclusivity, but also made clear the party’s chagrin at recent tensions in the President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s ruling coalition, of which PKS is a member. In a somewhat ungracious introduction, Hilmi failed to acknowledge leaders from other parties, most particularly those of the main coalition members, the Democrat Party and Golkar, and directed his remarks chiefly to President Yudhoyono.

Hilmi boasted of his access to the president and warned that some (presumably within coalition ranks) wanted to undermine the PKS-Yudhoyono relationship, which he described as the ‘backbone’ of the government. ‘Many are jealous about why Ustadz Hilmi so easily goes to Cikeas [Yudhoyono’s private residence]’, he said. ‘Those who want to cause divisions are many. But so be it, because what is a coalition are PKS and Bapak SBY [Yudhoyono]. God willing, throughout the two terms of the SBY presidency, we will continue this permanent coalition.’ At this point, the image of a disgruntled-looking Golkar chairperson, Aburizal Bakrie, appeared on the giant screens flanking the stage, drawing laughter from delegates who seemingly approved the calculated slight to the coalition’s second-largest member.

PKS’s new leadership team also drew much comment, not so much for the new faces as for the preponderance of older faces in strategic roles. Anis Matta was re-elected to the critical role of secretary-general, despite the fact that he now also holds a deputy speakership of parliament. In the past, PKS has insisted that cadres holding ministerial or high public office relinquish their party executive positions. Anis is now by far the longest-serving party secretary-general in Indonesian politics, having held this position in PK and PKS since 1998. Other well-established figures, such as Hilmi, Mahfudz Siddiq and Fahri Hamzah continue in prominent roles. More than a few cadres privately compared PKS unfavourably to Partai Demokrat, as the latter had recently gained momentum by installing a new leadership under Anas Urbaningrum, thereby attracting considerable media and public interest. These party members felt PKS had missed an opportunity to bring fresh faces into frontline roles.

Puttin’ on the Ritz

Three issues deserve closer analysis, the first of which was the party’s decision to hold the munas at a hotel as luxurious as the Ritz-Carlton. Entertainment and pageantry are common in the congresses of large Indonesian organisations, but PKS’s munas was more lavish than any recent comparable event. Within the past few months, Megawati’s PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah have staged their five-yearly congresses – all were held in humbler venues, and only the Democrats’ congress came near to the spectacle of the PKS event. The munas must also have been the most expensive political conference held in recent times. The party paid half of delegates’ travel costs and provided free accommodation in nearby hotels, most of which were four or five-star. It also paid for all food at the Ritz-Carlton. PKS leaders told journalists the total outlay for the munas was Rp9-10 billion (about A$1.2 million), but the full cost probably far exceeded this.

For years, the party has striven to portray itself as fundamentally concerned about the fate of ordinary people and about creating a fairer distribution of wealth and opportunity in Indonesia. Party members usually pride themselves on their simplicity of tastes and lifestyle and many delegates quietly admitted feeling out of place in such an opulent setting. What message were party leaders hoping to send by choosing such a venue?

The official explanation from party leaders was that the Ritz-Carlton was the only suitable venue in Jakarta at this time. It was the only venue with a ballroom capable of holding 4000 people (the other site, the Jakarta Convention Centre, was booked out to the end of the year). Moreover, the organisers claim to have negotiated a ‘good deal’ with the Ritz-Carlton, getting the ballroom for free and only having to pay for catering costs.

    Delegates enjoy a meal at the conference
    Image courtesy of PKS

Whatever the pragmatic arguments, there can be little doubt that PKS leaders chose an elite hotel for its symbolic impact. A national congress at the Ritz-Carlton made a statement about the party’s growing wealth and its determination to be seen as an established political force. One PKS leader told me: ‘Other big parties have events in big hotels and no one comments on it. People have to get used to PKS also doing this. We’re the fourth biggest party in Indonesia and the third biggest party in cabinet. And we continue to grow.’ In effect, the ‘five-star munas’ declared that PKS had made the transition from a humble student-based party on the fringes of Indonesian society to being part of the nation’s political and business elite.

International friends or foes

The second issue relates to the ‘internationalised’ Munas agenda. As noted above, the PKS congress was unusual in the prominence given to foreign speakers, especially the US, Australian and German ambassadors, and to the discussion of international diplomatic and strategic matters. PKS leaders gave particular emphasis to the appearance of the US ambassador, Cameron Hume, making repeated references to his session in press statements leading up to the conference and noting that America’s relations with the Muslim world would feature prominently in the discussions. Such was the focus on Hume’s attendance that various commentators began accusing PKS of seeking to ingratiate itself with the Obama Administration and of diluting its previously critical stance towards US foreign policy, especially regarding Palestine.

While PKS’s emphasis on foreign issues was unusual for an Indonesian party, it was by no means uncommon for PKS. Of all major parties, PKS is by far the most internationally aware. This partly reflects the legacy of the party’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tarbiyah origins. Many PKS leaders were heavily influenced by doctrines which held that global anti-Islamic forces led by the United States and its allies in the West were bent on undermining if not destroying Islam. Notions such as ghazrul fikri (invasion of ideas), in which Western cultural values are seen as corrupting Islam, were widely studied by campus activists in the 1980s and 1990s, and still have residual influence today. PKS cadres also have a high interest in international Islamic issues, such as the plight of Palestinian and Kashmiri Muslims.

The invitation to the US ambassador was not just part of the party’s interest in understanding Western viewpoints and policies but also an attempt to reassure powerful and potentially hostile forces that the party does not pose a threat and should not be opposed. It is noteworthy that many of the members of audience at the two ‘international’ sessions asked questions that were thoughtful and showed good knowledge of overseas events, rather than being strident or condemnatory of the West.

There is also a practical consideration behind the party’s attempt to court foreign interests, including the United States. Party leaders believe that in developing ties with major foreign governments and parties they can open up opportunities which will directly benefit the party. PKS has thus assiduously fostered relations with the Australian Labor Party, Britain’s Labour Party, the Democratic Party in the US, UMNO in Malaysia and the Chinese Communist Party, using these links to gain scholarships and training courses for talented cadres, to develop trade ties or technology exchanges involving provinces and districts whose governments are led by PKS members, and to learn more generally about good governance.

Front stage-back stage

But the third and most intriguing aspect of the conference was its secretiveness. All parties have internal matters that they want to keep from outsiders, but the conferences of major parties and organisations in Indonesia are usually quite open. For example, the recent Democrat Party, PDI-P and Nahdlatul Ulama congresses allowed observers and journalists access to most, if not all, sessions, and in all three cases, outsiders were able to witness policy debates, leadership campaigns and elections without hindrance. By contrast, PKS allowed no outsiders into its internal sessions. The only leadership process to take place publicly at the munas was the installation of senior office holders. That PKS should have been so zealous about not exposing its internal discussions to scrutiny was surprising given how often terms such as ‘openness’ and ‘transparency’ were uttered by PKS leaders.

In fact, all of the key party policy and leadership decisions had been taken at closed-door Majelis Syuro meetings in Jakarta over months leading up to the munas. The Majelis Syuro itself is largely non-transparent. The identity of most of its 99 members is not made public, nor usually is the timing and locations of its meetings. Some munas delegates later informed me that the internal sessions at the munas were dominated by briefings and motivational speeches by party leaders, rather than discussion of or debate about party policy and strategy. One cadre said: ‘This was all about socialising decisions from the party leadership. We were told what the Majelis Syuro had decided and how best to implement the decisions. This munas is not about deliberation.’ Another told me: ‘Dissent or differing opinions are frowned upon at these occasions. We are expected to just accept Majelis Syuro decisions.’

PKS leaders may be reluctant to allow outside access to internal sessions because it would lay bare the increasingly top-down nature of decision making within the party. They are also bent on presenting a united front to the public. Divisions within the party elite over presidential and vice-presidential nominations became public during the 2004 and 2009 presidential election campaigns, causing considerable embarrassment and disquiet among rank and file members.

But there is another, more fundamental, reason for the party’s secretiveness. At the heart of the party is a growing contradiction between, on the one hand, its political strategy of openness and accommodation of non-Tarbiyah, and even non-Muslim, recruits and on the other hand, its deep-seated inclination to internal religious exclusivity. In effect, PKS is seeking to balance a double agenda. The ‘front stage’ or outer program is designed to secure political success and long-term power through growing mainstream support; the ‘back stage’ or internal program aims to satisfy the tight-knit and religiously devout identity of PKS members.

The ‘front stage’ or outer program is designed to secure political success and long-term power through growing mainstream support; the ‘back stage’ or internal program aims to satisfy the tight-knit and religious devout identity of PKS members

Party leaders know they have to present an image of openness if they want to succeed as a political force, but they also want to protect the party’s internal culture of Islamic pietism. Some people expect the party’s attempt to reach out to the mainstream to be diluting the Islamism of its members. But the reverse may be the case. It may well be that the more the party pursues political openness, the more its leaders are concerned to guard its internal life from ‘contamination’ from less pious elements of society.

So, the PKS munas was really a study in contradictions, with a party that is striving for mainstream acceptance and yet fundamentally wary of mainstream scrutiny and penetration. Given that the PKS is already regarded with some suspicion by other major parties and Islamic organisations, let alone by more secular-oriented Indonesians, the sharp division between the public face and the private culture of the party is likely to heighten rather than lessen doubts about the party’s ultimate intentions. From this point of view, the munas failed to achieve one of its main goals: to persuade the broader community that the PKS is truly part of the mainstream.

Greg Fealy (greg.fealy@anu.edu.au) is a senior lecturer and fellow in the College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University. He thanks Dr Taufik Widjaja and the Munas organising committee for inviting him to the conference and funding his travel and accommodation expenses. While at the conference, Dr. Fealy presented a paper entitled ‘Fine Rhetoric, Flawed Conception: A Critical Reflection on Obama’s “Speech to the Muslim World”’.

Inside Indonesia 101: Jul-Sep 2010

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