Indonesia: Lessons for political islam

Indonesia has been an example to the Muslim world, along with Turkey, in having a new Islamic party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in power as part of a successful governing coalition along with the new and growing Democratic Party (Partai Demokrat) of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But now Indonesia faces general elections on April 9 and pre-election opinion polls show support for Islamic parties is falling.

An opinion poll conducted February 9-19 by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and three other research institutes shows that with 23 percent of voters undecided, support for the four main religious parties, the United Development Party (PPP), the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the National Awakening Party (PKB) has plummeted since 2004.

The drop in percentage support for each party is striking. According to the opinion polls support for the PKB has fallen from 10.5 to 3.25 percent (reflecting a party split); for the PPP from 8.15 to 4.15 percent; for the PKS from 7.34 to 4.07 percent and for the PAN from 6.44 to 2.91 percent. The votes cast for religious parties in 2004 totaled 32.5% compared to 14 percent in the polls now.

Many voters have switched to the new Democratic Party of the successful president. The Democratic Party is secular and reformist. In Indonesia a political party has to be led by a well-known charismatic leader to get significant support.

The radical opposition party that emerged from fighting the Soeharto regime, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) is led by Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of President Soekarno. The Golkar Party, was the ruling party during the Soeharto regime, and is now a reformed liberal business party, led by populist Vice President Yusuf Kalla.

The Democratic Party now has 22 percent support in the polls, the PDI-P 16 percent and the Golkar Party 14 percent. The Democratic Party represents a departure from traditional politics and is associated with the modern post-Soeharto reform period.

The Democratic Party as a new centrist secular party is taking support from the traditional parties and from the Islamic parties. The reason for the former is that it is new and viewed as fairly successful. Its reformist anti-corruption stance helps it to gain support from the two traditional nationalist parties.

Voting public not motivated

However the Democratic Party is also pulling votes from the Islamic and religious parties for other reasons, although its anti-corruption stance also helps it to compete particularly with the PKS, with which it has been in coalition and which has also campaigned on the secular issue of clean government.

It looks like the Islamic PKS recently lost support in West Java because some of its policies were unpopular. In particular a PKS West Java Governor sparked controversy when he called for traditional jaipong dancing to be toned down because it was too sexy.

Which takes us to the main reasons why the religious parties appear to be doing badly.

The earlier burst of campaigning about Palestine during the Gaza War has brought no clear political benefits and may have brought a backlash, associating political Islam with militancy, violence and divisions between Arabs and Muslims. The Palestine issue may have helped motivate political cadres, but not the voting public.

Second recent campaigns on an anti-pornography act, the criticisms of sexy traditional dancers and of yoga by conservative Muslims may have aroused Indonesian liberal instincts, creating a political backlash against morality campaigning.

Third the maneuveres to try to mobilize “the Muslim vote”, to woo the two main Muslim mass organizations the Nahdatul Ulama (NU) and the Muhammadiyah, and the large religious schools (pesantren), may have been overshadowed by splits between personalities and parties.

Finally this election is about jobs, money and the economy, not about religion.

TERRY LACEY is a development economist who writes from Jakarta on modernization in the Muslim world, investment and trade relations with the EU and Islamic banking.

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