Asia-Pacific, Headlines

POLITICS-INDONESIA: Islamic Parties Woo Votes, But Chances Poor

Andreas Harsono

JAKARTA, Mar 30 2004 (IPS) - Indonesia has seen the Bali bombing, the defeat of an Islamic party in neighbouring Malaysia and the rise of Islamic militancy across South-east Asia. But voters in the world’s most populous Muslim country are unlikely to give much support to Islamic parties in the Apr. 5 parliamentary elections.

Indonesia has seen the Bali bombing, the defeat of an Islamic party in neighbouring Malaysia and the rise of Islamic militancy across South-east Asia. But voters in the world’s most populous Muslim country are unlikely to give much support to Islamic parties in the Apr. 5 parliamentary elections.

The reasons are complicated. But a deeper look into the history of Islamic movement in Indonesia shows that despite the growing global perception of increased politicisation of Islam in Indonesia, especially after the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and the Oct. 12, 2002 bombing in Bali, the importance of Islamic parties here has substantially decreased.

”Since the 1950s the attractiveness of Islamic parties here has shown incompatibility with the huge number of the Muslim population,” said Hamid Basyaib, a researcher at the Aksara Foundation in Jakarta.

”It is not a must for a Muslim to vote for an Islamic party,” Novi Rachmawati, a secretary for ‘Trust’ business magazine, says in an interview. ”For me it is more important to see the (political) figures rather than the parties,” she adds, saying she is voting for a secular party.

Esti Wahyuni of the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow of Information finds a lot of the presidential candidates, including the ones who claim to be carrying Islamic ideals, corrupt, if not lacklustre, and says she will use that yardstick on voting day. ”I think religion cannot be mixed with religious governance,” she says.


Basyaib added that in Indonesia’s first democratic election in 1955, Islamic parties gained 42 percent of the votes at a time when nationalists, including some communists, won the election.

But after three decades of totalitarian rule under President Suharto, when elections were tailored to fit his political moods, a second democratic election held in 1999 produced sharply different results. Islamic parties – defined as those that use Islam and the Islamic legal system known as ‘shariah’ as their political ideology – garnered only 14 percent of the votes.

This was a huge reduction from their 1955 tally, and has called into question how influential the Islamic parties will be next week.

After Suharto’s rule from 1965 and 1998, Indonesia is now an emerging democracy watched with care by many other countries who fear the viral spread of Taliban-styled Islamic fundamentalism into the strategic nation’s vast Muslim population.

On Apr. 5, almost 148 million voters will choose their members of local, provincial, and national parliaments.

But analysts like Basyaib expect an encouraging pattern to take shape in the poll.

Big parties such as President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDIP) and the Golkar Party, both considered to be secular parties, are set to gain many new voters. The newer Nation Awakening Party (PKB) and the National Mandate Party (PAN), which are officially secular parties but have strong Muslim bases, will also get a big chunk of the votes.

But the official Islamic parties may not do as well. The three biggest Islamic parties, the United Development Party (PPP), the Crescent Star Party (PBB), and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), as well as smaller ones, may get less than 20 percent of the combined Islamic vote. ”PKS might increase their votes due to the clean image that they have. PPP might gain less than in 1999 due to internal bickering,” said Basyaib.

Indonesia has a population of 220 million, of which 85 percent are Muslims. In the 1950s, it was common to see Islamic parties advance the notion that Muslims should vote only for ‘partai Islam’. Many clerics underlined that approach by saying that Islamic votes were related to voters’ ”afterlife in heaven”.

In the 1970s, however, prominent Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid launched the slogan ”Islam yes, Islamic parties no.” The slogan became hugely popular and was seen as liberating Muslim voters to separate their religion from their political affiliation. Indonesian Muslims have since become more at ease in voting for secular parties.

What are the prospects next week? According to a survey by the International Republican Institute in December, members of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, are very likely to vote for PKB, led by former president Abdurrahman Wahid.

PKB is closely related to NU, whose membership is estimated at 35 million. Wahid is also an ardent advocate of religious tolerance.

Members of the Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second largest Muslim group, are very likely to vote for PAN, which is led by Amien Rais, the speaker of Indonesia’s People’s Consultative Assembly. Amien, himself a presidential candidate, used to head the Muhammadiyah, whose members number an estimated 30 million Muslims.

Both PKB and PAN claim to be non-Islamic parties and nominated many non-Muslims to be their parliamentary candidates. The PKB, for instance, named Bara Hasibuan, who was once a U.S. congressional fellow, is a Christian from northern Sumatra, traditionally a Christian enclave in western Indonesia, as its candidate in the area.

The survey also revealed that the majority of other Muslims are likely to vote either for the Golkar Party (26 percent) or PDIP (19 percent). Non-Muslims, who are mostly Christians especially in eastern Indonesia, but also include smaller proportions of Buddhists and Hindus, are more likely to vote either for PDIP (37 percent) and Golkar Party (27 percent).

Malaysia’s largest Islamic party, Partai Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), lost the state elections in Terengganu in the Mar. 21 election. The fortunes of this Islamic party, which won control of the Terengganu state legislature four years ago and traditionally controls Kelantan state were closely watched as a barometer of militant Islam in South-east Asia.

Since taking control in Terengganu, PAS has imposed religious laws, including bans on alcohol and gambling.

Indonesians will vote for their local members of parliament on April 5, and 24 political parties will participate. The election will be a three-step process. A presidential election will be held in July, and if no candidate has won more than 50 percent of the vote, which is very likely, a final presidential election will be held in September.

Indonesia has seen a change in political culture among Muslim voters. ”Muslim voters can easily distinguish Islam as a religion from the Islamic parties fighting for political influence. Most voters support those parties with secular platforms due to the changing culture,” the English-language daily ‘Jakarta Post’ quoted researcher Saiful Mujani of the Jakarta-based think tank Freedom Institute as saying.

Wahyuni says he will vote for PAN because ”although it never speaks about Islam but it is Islamic”, adding that his domestic helper says she is voting PKS because ”PKS people never talk about Islam but practiced what they are saying such as when they helped when Jakarta was flooded”.

Interestingly, the differentation between Islam as religion and political vehicle has also prompted Islamic parties to address ”Islamic issues” with caution.

They rarely campaign on ‘shariah’ issues. Most of them do not openly advocate polygamy – a practice still tolerated in some Islamic areas. PKS even proportionally topped the list of the political parties in terms of putting women as candidates for parliament. In its campaign, it puts stress on being politically clean and brave -but not Islamic.

 
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POLITICS-INDONESIA: Islamic Parties Woo Votes, But Chances Poor

Andreas Harsono

JAKARTA, Mar 30 2004 (IPS) - Indonesia has seen the Bali bombing, the defeat of an Islamic party in neighbouring Malaysia and the rise of Islamic militancy across South-east Asia. But voters in the world’s most populous Muslim country are unlikely to give much support to Islamic parties in the Apr. 5 parliamentary elections.
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