May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Dominant but weak

Dominant but weak

Thomas B. Pepinsky

      PKS supporters campaigning in Yogyakarta
      Danu Primanto

Many progressive groups, secularists, and religious moderates in Indonesia worry about the conservative Islamic agenda in Indonesia. This is primarily due to the ability of conservative groups to win the passage of illiberal or anti-pluralist legislation ‘in the name of Allah’. In recent years, Indonesia’s nationalist parties have accepted such legislation in order to avoid appearing anti-Islam. Such fears are best illustrated through the restrictions placed on the Ahmadiyah sect’s ability to proselytize, and the passing of the 2008 anti-pornography bill; each completed at the behest of a group of vocal conservative elements and political parties that struck temporary, issue-based coalitions with nationalists and moderates.

But this worry has been accompanied lately by another set of concerns about the future of political Islam as an electoral force in Indonesia. Some progressives and moderates see worrying signals in the April 2009 legislative elections about the long-term trajectories of nationalist, Pancasila-based parties that provide the main electoral alternative to Islamic parties. This concern is not just about the willingness of nationalist parties to stand up to conservative interpretations of Islam, but rather about long-term weaknesses in the nationalist parties themselves.

Some progressives and moderates see worrying signals in the April 2009 legislative elections about the long term trajectories of nationalist, Pancasila-based parties that provide the main electoral alternative to Islamic parties

How can this be? After all, the results of the April 2009 elections suggest that political Islam’s influence on Indonesian politics is on the decline. These results seem unambiguous: the percentage of voters choosing parties with an Islamic platform – counting Islamic nationalist parties such as PAN (National Mandate Party) and PKB (National Awakening Party), the more conservative PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) and PPP (Unity Development Party), and the broader field of smaller Islamic parties that contested the 2009 elections – has declined sharply, from around 38 per cent in 2004 to around 30 per cent. The smaller Islamic parties PBR (Star Reform Party) and PBB (Crescent Star Party) failed to reach the minimum electoral threshold, and appear to be politically irrelevant. In fact, the only Islamic party that increased its vote share was PKS, and this increase was less than one per cent, yielding a final share of 7.9 per cent, lying well below its target of 20 per cent. In absolute terms, PKS actually received fewer votes in 2009 than in 2004.

These results then, are disheartening for Islamic parties that had hoped to flex their electoral and parliamentary muscles from 2009-2014. Yet it would be wrong to conclude from these results that Islamic parties are consigned to perpetual irrelevance. These same electoral results that show the Islamic parties losing electoral support in 2009 also reveal trends that will benefit Islamic parties – in particular, PKS – in future elections. This is because the electoral results reveal certain fragilities in the three biggest Pancasila-based parties in Indonesia.

Dominant but weak

Consider PD, the Democrat Party that is the personal vehicle of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) that with 20.6 per cent of the popular vote came out well ahead of all other parties. SBY looks certain to win the upcoming presidential election by a large majority. Despite contesting two elections, though, PD has hardly the institutional strength that might be expected in a party of its stature. Instead, it depends on the popularity of SBY to turn out voters in its favour. This is fine for SBY, and for the party itself in the short term, but it cannot be a long-term party strategy, for SBY is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term in 2014.

PDI-P (Indonesia Democracy Party - Struggle) and Golkar look little better. PDI-P’s Megawati Sukarnoputri, who was a leading force of populist opposition under Suharto’s New Order regime, has been proven unelectable. Under her watch, PDI-P’s vote share has dropped from 34 per cent in 1999 to under 14 per cent in 2009. Golkar finds itself facing roughly the same problem, although it started off from a worse position in 1999. It started in this comparatively worse position because of its association with Indonesia’s authoritarian New Order regime, which had collapsed amidst economic turmoil in 1998. Golkar is the natural political home for Indonesia’s powerful indigenous business leaders, such as Aburizal Bakrie and Jusuf Kalla. But even as the New Order and its disastrous collapse recede from memory, Golkar’s vote share has steadily decreased rather than increased.

These are the trends for the three largest nationalist parties, and they have important implications. Ahmad Suaedy, executive director of the Wahid Institute, a progressive Islamic institution that advocates for a tolerant and inclusive vision of Indonesian Islam, worries that PDI-P and Golkar will continue to see their popular support erode, while the Democrat Party will find itself without a viable candidate or even a coherent platform in 2014. He sees this as an opportunity for PKS to vault from its disappointing fourth place finish to the centre stage of Indonesian politics. This would certainly not mean a first place finish – no one sees this as likely – but even a third place finish would give the party significantly more political clout than it currently enjoys. Rizal Sukma, a member of Muhammadiyah’s Central Executive Board as well as the executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, echoes this worry. He argues that Islamic parties become successful not because of their popularity, but because of weakness and division among nationalists. In such a scenario, the appeal of PKS would not be so much its Islamic platform, which most Indonesian voters do not consider enough of a reason to earn their vote, but rather its strong grassroots networks, mobilisational capacity and economic populism.

Of course, not everyone is so concerned. For PKS to profit from declining vote share among nationalist parties in a way that would allow it to overtake one or more of the big nationalist parties, it would need to siphon votes from other Islamic parties and at the same time attract the support of some nationalist party supporters as well. Luthfi Assyaukanie, chairman of the Liberal Islam Network (JIL), argues that a relatively fixed percentage of voters are prepared to vote for an Islamic party such as PKS or PPP. The fact that the rise of PKS’s electoral support has been accompanied by a decline in support for other Islamic parties is evidence of this. The steady decline of support for Golkar and PDI-P then, is just the consequence of their voters jumping ship to support another nationalist party, the Democrats.

Others, though, are not so sure. As an exercise, imagine that voters do not form two impenetrable blocks, that at least some proportion of nationalist party supporters might be moved to vote for Islamic parties under the right conditions. There is some reason to expect that this is the case: surveys conducted by the Lembaga Survei Indonesia show that a large majority of Muslim Indonesians would vote for an Islamic party if they supported its economic policy platform. In other words, it doesn’t appear that voters are fundamentally opposed to Islamic parties by virtue of being Islamic parties. An incoherent or discredited nationalist coalition might provide just the impetus needed for these voters to consider voting for a well-organised and ideologically coherent Islamic party. At the present time, the only party that fits that description in Indonesia is PKS.

Renewing the nationalists

pdi-p_ guards.jpg
      To renew itself, the PDI-P needs to go beyond populism
      Danu Primanto

Looking forward from 2009, there are four ways that nationalist or pluralistically-inclined Islamic parties might try to head off such a possibility. But there are substantial hurdles standing in the way of two of these possibilities, and a third might be just as unattractive to moderates and progressives as PKS is itself.

First, PDI-P can start now to reinvent itself as a centre-left party with a coherent political platform and strong grassroots support. This probably means abandoning the personalistic politics of Sukarno’s daughter and granddaughter, and embracing a more substantive form of campaigning and representation. Adding programmatic substance would be a difficult challenge for a party that is as deeply populist in its instincts as the PDI-P. An even larger problem with this strategy is that vocal groups in PDI-P still believe that Megawati and her daughter, Puan Maharani, are charismatic-enough figures to lead the party. A PDI-P without a Sukarno at its head, so the logic goes, will lose more support than the party already has. Even if Megawati resigns from active politics, it is not clear if renewal is on the party’s agenda. This is all the more problematic for the party’s future because some of its most active supporters are disgusted by Megawati’s decision to run on the same ticket as Prabowo Subianto.

Second, PKB and PAN can claim a central position as the electoral vehicles for voters who wish to support Islamic parties. Many progressives in Indonesia’s Muslim community view these parties as more moderate, and more inclined to adopt an accommodating stance regarding issues of religion and pluralism. However, like the nationalist parties, PKB and PAN have seen their electoral support decline over the past three elections. Moreover, political elites in each party seem more inclined to argue about internal party issues than to effectively communicate their visions of Indonesian political Islam.

Third, the other nationalist parties that passed the electoral threshold in 2009 – Hanura and Gerindra – might further strengthen their positions to capture the nationalist vote. The problem here is that these parties are led by none other than Prabowo Subianto and Wiranto, two ex-generals with stained human rights records. It is not clear that progressive Indonesians would prefer a regime led by Prabowo to one led by PKS. JIL’s Luthfi Assyaukanie, for instance, suggests that Gerindra and Hanura might ‘run to the Islamists’ if they feel doing so would be in their interests.

SBY’s Challenge

The final possibility has perhaps the best chance of success. The Democrat Party can transform itself from SBY’s personal vehicle into a truly institutionalised political party. SBY’s advisers report that he has begun to think of his party’s interests beyond his next term in office, but he faces a difficult road in constructing a strong party that will not just outlive him, but flourish. The problems are two-fold: time and incentives. Creating a truly institutionalised party with internal mechanisms for self-reproduction takes time and labour. Both of these, in turn, require sacrifices that are more easily mobilised from ideologically focused party supporters who are politically marginalised. For better or for worse, PD supporters share no clear ideology, and they are far from being marginalised, having given the party the largest share of seats in the national legislative assembly.

The hope for progressives who are concerned about the growing assertiveness of Islamism in Indonesia, then, is that SBY takes a long view of his interests. If SBY and his closest associates believe that they face a threat to their interests after their second term has concluded, it might prompt them to construct the type of political party now that could protect their interests later. If SBY wants to be secure in his legacy tomorrow, he must build a durable political machine today.

Whether Islamic parties can seize the electoral opportunity in future years depends critically on their ability to actually get nationalist voters to support them

Of course, not all Indonesian progressives are so deeply concerned about the rise of PKS or of political Islam more broadly. Some are more concerned with empowering the poor, eradicating corruption, improving government services, protecting the environment, fighting for civil rights and gender equality, or any number of other issues. For many of these causes, PKS and other Islamic parties can be allies rather than competitors. Others believe that the political realities of Indonesia’s messy young democracy have forced PKS and other Islamic parties to soften their Islamic stance in search of greater political influence. It is instructive here that PKS and other Islamic parties have not only formed a coalition with the Democrats but also have begrudgingly accepted SBY’s choice of Boediono as candidate for vice president – in essence, sacrificing both their demand for a more ‘Islamic’ vice president and their populist economic message in exchange for some promises of cabinet representation. Still other progressives, in particular activists from the women’s movement and those representing Christian and ethnic Chinese minorities, see illiberal agendas in all parties, not just Islamic ones. In sum, there is diversity of opinion among Indonesian progressives about whether political Islam is the major issue in Indonesian politics, about whether PKS and others have moderated, and even about whether the ‘threat’ of political Islam comes primarily from Islamic parties like PKS.

Moreover, it is worth emphasising that every worry about disorganised nationalist parties handing Islamic parties an electoral opportunity in future years depends critically on the ability of Islamic parties to actually get nationalist voters to support them. To do this, PKS needs to emphasise anti-corruption and good governance, and at the same time not lose that small core Islamic constituency that does care about its Islamic platform. If this is not possible, then future elections will simply feature a larger bloc of disorganised nationalists competing with a smaller bloc of organised Islamists. The former will rely on party identification and personalistic politics, and the latter will be ever consigned to about a quarter of the seats in the DPR. What is clear at this point is that few Indonesian progressives are willing to bet that the future will be so easy.     ii

Thomas B Pepinsky ( is an assistant professor of government at Cornell University. He is currently researching a book on the political economy of Indonesian political Islam.

Inside Indonesia 97: Jul-Sep 2009

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