May 20, 2024 Last Updated 5:01 AM, May 8, 2024

Down but not out

Down but not out

Bernhard Platzdasch

      Enthusiasm for the PKS at a Yogyakarta rally
      Danu Primanto

The international media has described the 2009 legislative election as a bad one for political Islam. The vote for Islamist parties dropped from 21 per cent in 2004 to roughly 16.5 per cent, which is more or less back to what they won in the 1999 elections. If one adds the vote of Indonesia’s Islam-oriented parties (parties that are linked to large Islamic organisations but do not include Islam as their formal ideology), the vote looks even worse, with a decline from about 36 per cent in 1999 and roughly 37.5 per cent in 2004 to 29 per cent in 2009.

Many Muslim voters now appear to believe that their religious interests can be sufficiently represented by the pluralist Muslim parties or even by the nationalist parties

Does the Islamist and Islamic-oriented parties’ poor showing mean that political Islam is a spent force in Indonesia? I argue it does not. As we shall see, the problems of the Islamic parties mask a deeper trend at work: Islamic agendas are being adopted by so-called mainstream, secular parties. These parties have increasingly moved toward a pro-Islamic ideological middle-ground in recent years by assuming a ‘nationalist-religious’ platform. In a Muslim majority country such as Indonesia, this naturally means an accommodation of Islamic interests, a phenomenon I explain in greater detail below. This shift toward the centre is mirrored by the Islamists, who have also downscaled their Islamist agendas. A close analysis of the results of the biggest Islamist parties reveals this process at work.

How the parties fared

Among the ten top-scoring parties this year, only three can be classified as Islamist, that is, as having Islam as their guiding ideology. They are the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Prosperous Justice Party, PKS), Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (Unity Development Party, PPP) and Partai Bulan Bintang (Crescent Star Party, PBB). PKS ranked fourth in the election, attaining about 7.88 per cent, up from 7.34 percent in 2004; PPP was sixth with 5.32 per cent, a big decline from its 2004 vote of 8.15 per cent, and PBB tenth, holding steady at about 1.79 per cent of the votes.

In another category are the Islam-oriented parties Partai Amanat Nasional (National Mandate Party, PAN) and Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (National Awakening Party, PKB). Unlike the Islamist parties mentioned above, PAN and PKB base themselves on Indonesia’s pluralist state doctrine Pancasila and do not promote a syariah (Islamic law) agenda. While this is official party policy, it does not mean that factions or individual leaders of these parties do not support implementation of various syariah-friendly laws. Also, individual PKB and, especially, PAN leaders have conservative views on a range of Islam-related matters, such as the desirability of banning the Islamic Ahmadiyah sect or of enacting last year’s controversial anti-pornography law.

Rather than going to PAN and PKB, the Islamic vote went to the nationalist, ‘secular’, parties, especially the leading Democrat Party

PKB and PAN did not benefit from the Islamist parties’ weak performance. PKB’s result was especially disappointing. Back in 1999 and 2004, the party still came third with 12.6 per cent and then 10.57 per cent of the vote. But now PKB languishes in seventh place, gaining roughly five per cent. With 6.01 per cent, PAN basically repeated its 2004 result. Clearly, rather than turning to PAN and PKB, the Islamic vote went to the nationalist, ‘secular’, parties, especially the leading Democrat Party.

PKS: the pluralist predicament

The election resulted in PKS becoming the Islamist party with the largest share of the vote, replacing PPP. What is more, PKS was the only major party aside from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party able to improve on its 2004 election performance. Despite this, the result fell short of what PKS strategists had expected to achieve some one or two years ago, when they had announced a goal of 20 per cent. In the Greater Jakarta area, PKS lost its pole position to the Democrat Party. It also lost more than half of its votes in North Maluku. But it still did well in provinces such as West Sumatra, West Java and South Kalimantan, and made considerable gains in Central Sulawesi, West Nusa Tenggara and Central Java.

The overall result reflects the predicament that the party has been facing in recent years. The party has a strong Islamist identity, originating in a campus-based Islamic revival movement and enjoying strong links with the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East. Party members have a strong commitment to syariah. But it is also an ambitious party. The Islamist identity and its desire for growth have created the predicament. Whereas in previous elections, PKS found the right mixture of Islamism, professionalism and compromise, in 2009 it tried to present itself as ‘open’ and a ‘party for all’. In bending so far in the direction of pluralism, it seems to have overshot the mark. Party advertisements displayed unveiled women and the party publicly proposed that former President Suharto should be declared a national hero. Such moves suggested to many voters that PKS had become overly preoccupied with gaining power. Back in the early democratic period, PKS (which was then called PK, the Justice Party) had portrayed itself as staunchly reformist and as an adversary of the New Order regime.

In bending so far in the direction of pluralism, PKS seems to have overshot the mark

The party’s downplaying of its Islamist identity may have won it a few new, non-Islamist, voters. But it also alienated many of its core followers who either deserted to other parties or—and this is likely to be the greater number— abstained from voting because they no longer perceived PKS (or indeed, any other Islamist party) as representing their aspirations. Yet other voters, who previously chose PKS because of its strong record on humanitarian and social issues, might have shunned the party this time over its vocal support for last year’s anti-pornography law (a piece of legislation that was denounced as overly restrictive and puritanical by many members of minority groups and secularists). The PKS-aligned governor of West Java also gained much publicity when he called for a ‘toning down’ of traditional dances after he came to office last year. To non-Islamist voters, these steps revealed the party’s inherent conservatism and a hidden agenda of wanting to impose syariah values on Indonesian society as a whole.

Today’s PKS leadership is dominated by pragmatists. Doctrinaire Islamists now play a much smaller public role than in the early days of the party. Yet behind the show of unity there is increasing tension in PKS, with the Islamists railing against the pragmatic bloc and its penchant for expedience and flexibility in the pursuit of political power.

While the party had long been very successful in maintaining internal discipline, it is likely that disagreements over political strategy will become increasingly strong over the next few years.

PPP: on the way out?

      Nothing to cheer about. PPP lost its position as the top-ranking Islamist party
      Danu Primanto

PPP entered the new era with a considerable advantage among the Islamic parties: the name recognition and organisational resources conferred on it by almost three decades of previous existence. The PPP was established in 1973 as a result of a merger that was forced on existing Islamic parties by the Suharto regime. Although the party could never operate independently during the Suharto years, at least it could participate in the regime’s highly controlled elections, run a national organisation and promote itself before a national audience.

But during the first ten years of democracy, PPP has lost a sizeable chunk of its constituency. In the 1999 polls, PPP obtained 10.7 per cent, and in 2004, it gained 8.1 per cent of the votes. Now, in 2009, its share dropped to 5.32 per cent. The only province where PPP was still able to outperform PKS was Gorontalo in North Sulawesi. In its traditional strongholds in West and Central Java, and in South Kalimantan, PPP was outperformed by PKS, as it was nationally.

PPP made much use of Islamic symbols and language in the election campaign and reiterated its claim to be ‘the party of the ulama [Islamic scholars]’. It also tried to tackle its lackluster image, reaching out to younger voters, for example, by making a number of celebrities party officials. These efforts failed because other parties undertook similar efforts (PKB also claims to be the party endorsed by ulama; parties such as PAN or the Democrat Party also were keen to have celebrity legislative candidates). More generally, many religiously aware Muslim voters no longer see PPP as the ‘authentic’ representative of Islam. This role has been increasingly taken over by PKS. Other, more pluralist oriented Muslims have switched to parties that have a modern image, such as PAN and the Democrat Party.

Many religiously aware Muslim voters no longer see PPP as the ‘authentic’ representative of Islam, a role that has been increasingly taken over by PKS

PPP and PKS represent different types of Islam. This makes their change of place significant. PPP is an amalgamation of modernist and traditionalist Islamic organisations, a legacy of the forced merger of 1973. The partnership between the two streams has often been strained, with them battling for control of the party.

The poor showing in this year’s polls seems to have worsened PPP’s trademark factionalism. Senior figures have blamed each other for the loss and pursued different post-election coalition deals. PPP chairman Suryadharma Ali (a traditionalist) cosied up with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, and Golkar, whilst PPP advisory council chairman Bachtiar Chamsyah (a modernist) expressed support for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party.

There is also fierce debate in the party over how to more effectively blend its Islamic core identity with the need to appear ‘open’, with many calling for a reduction of Islamic rhetoric. It is, however, unlikely that greater openness would get the party more votes, given that the party is seen as being deeply Islamic by most voters. It is also doubtful that a top-down modification of PPP’s party identity would be thoroughly observed by local party officials given how notoriously weak at enforcing discipline the party has been in the past.

PBB: destined for irrelevance

In contrast to PKS, whose ambition of becoming a mass-based party has necessitated compromise on its ideological convictions, PBB is a smaller niche party, which has thus been at greater liberty to emphasise its Islamist identity more candidly. PBB has styled itself as the only legitimate heir to the mantle of the old Masyumi party, the grand old party of Indonesian Islamism in the 1950s. In recent years, it has promoted its syariah-mindedness in increasingly straightforward ways; a fact the party rarely fails to highlight and which it has depicted as ideological honesty (its slogan reads: Fighting with syariah, for the benefit of the people). Still, while PBB openly supports the top-down implementation of various syariah laws, it does not stand for trenchant Islamism. It does, for instance, not call for Islam to replace Pancasila as state ideology.

PBB’s greater attention toward syariah, however, did not lead to a significant increase of votes. This year’s results more or less match those in 1999, when PBB made little public mention of its syariah ambitions. Despite being a small party, PBB still has a considerable following in West Nusa Tenggara, East Kalimantan and South Sulawesi. In Southeast Sulawesi, it did better than PKS.

Overall, however, what the party’s result shows is that syariah is not a winning electoral formula nationally. The other glaring factor is the repeated corruption allegations swirling around party chairperson MS Ka’ban. With only under two per cent of the vote, PBB has thus failed to clear the 2.5 per cent threshold required this year to attain seats in the national parliament. Along with another small Islamist party, the Partai Bintang Reformasi (Reform Star Party, PBR), it thus seems to be headed for political oblivion, at least at the national level.

It’s not over yet

Indonesia’s three largest Islamist parties thus find themselves at different crossroads. In the case of PKS, an increasingly visible gap between its Islamism and its desire to gain more support has led to internal frictions about how it should package itself. Ideologues in the party are likely to beef up their opposition to the pragmatists’ belief that the party’s ideological end – to replace the existing constitution with an Islamic one – justifies all political means. In PPP, the party’s characteristic mix of Islamism and allegiance to Pancasila-style pluralism has proven unable to ensure voters’ loyalty to the party. And the elections reconfirmed the narrow limits of the PBB’s possibilities for growth, and the ineffectiveness of Masyumi symbols in drawing significant support in today’s Indonesia.

Indonesia’s three largest Islamist parties find themselves at different crossroads

At the same time, political Islam is not down and out, even if the Islamist parties are experiencing difficulties. In today’s Indonesia, political parties of all stripes can no longer afford to be seen as neutral or indifferent towards Islamic interests (which they can do, arguably, with regard to the interests of other faiths or secular-oriented Indonesians). A greater number of Indonesian Muslims seem now devoted to an Islamic lifestyle. More Indonesians than ever before now wear Islamic attire and observe basic Islamic rules such as praying and fasting.

While this can be understood as a move towards a more conservative understanding of Islam, these Muslims may not wish for a comprehensive enforcement of syariah. This means that they don’t necessarily vote for Islamist parties at national elections. Many Muslim voters now appear to believe that their religious interests can be sufficiently represented by the pluralist Muslim parties PKB and PAN, or even by the nationalist parties the Democrat Party, Golkar, and even PDI-P.

In response to this floating mass of Islamically-oriented voters, even the mainstream pluralist parties have tried to accommodate Islamic interests. Today’s centrist parties, such as the victorious Democrat Party, seem to believe that a pro-Islamic platform, combined with a focus on bread and butter issues will most likely cater to the Muslim majority electorate and thus lead to good election results.

In today’s Indonesia, political parties of all stripes can no longer afford to be seen as neutral or indifferent towards Islamic interests

There have been many examples of such adaptations in recent years. One came in 2008 when the Democrat Party supported the anti-pornography bill, which had initially been endorsed by PKS. Various Golkar leaders, too, spoke out in favour of the bill. Non-Islamist parties such as PDI-P have in previous years endorsed a number of syariah-friendly by-laws in various districts around the country. These by-laws often promised to curb immoral activities by banning alcohol or gambling. In other instances, officials of mainstream parties sanctioned local regulations that forbade women from leaving their homes unaccompanied after dark and forced them to dress modestly.

The Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono government has, for its part, been keen to accommodate what it sees as mainstream Muslim sentiment, while also trying to avoid being accused of violating Pancasila ideals. The president has tried to develop an image of himself as an Islamic leader by displaying his personal piety. His government has issued a number of pro-Islamic laws which, while existing on paper, are unlikely to be enforced decisively. One example is the so-called Electronic Information Act. Cabinet members announced they would use this Act against blogs that insulted Muslim feelings but its implementation has been weak, at best. Another example is the government’s response to the long-time demand by Islamist groups to undertake action against the Ahmadiyah sect. The government issued a decree that walked a fine line by banning Ahmadiyah from spreading its teachings, but still allowing the practice of those teachings.

In other words, just as Islamist parties, especially the PKS, have tried to move to the centre by abandoning signs of Islamic ideology, so have the major non-Islamic parties been moving toward the centre by taking up more Islamic issues and adopting more Islamic rhetoric. The trend of convergence towards an ideological middle-ground is without doubt positive, as it contributes to political stability. It also represents a welcome shift toward pragmatism and centrism. However, the now taken-for-granted belief that it is necessary to placate Muslim sensitivities to be electorally successful is also a move away from secularism. It also seems to contradict the central tenant of Pancasila that all major religions - Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism and Hinduism - should be treated equally, thus arguably endangering a pluralism based on full equality.

Just as Islamist parties have tried to move to the centre by abandoning signs of Islamic ideology, so have the major non-Islamic parties been moving toward the centre by taking up more Islamic issues and adopting more Islamic rhetoric

More broadly, with most parties claiming to stand for centrist, non-extremist views, it has also become increasingly difficult to give a clear picture of what parties are really about. Party identities are now more indistinct and ambiguous than in earlier democratic periods. During Indonesia’s parliamentary democracy in the 1950s, secular-nationalist and Islamic parties stood for separate doctrinal objectives and, significantly, they voiced these objectives openly. The former struggled for Pancasila as state ideology, whereas the latter endeavoured to make Islam the ideology of the state. Now, pragmatism is paramount and cross-ideological alliances are the norm. The result is that parties are far less explicit, and arguably far less honest, about their ideology.     ii

Bernhard Platzdasch ( is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

Inside Indonesia 97: Jul-Sep 2009

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