Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Islam and Politics in Indonesia

A Momentous Change of Guard in Indonesian Islamic Politics
The current spotlight is on the search for a future coalition in
Indonesia but attention should also be given to the fact that
the polls have led to a historical change of guard among the
ranks of Islamist parties. This change involves the Unity
Development Party (PPP) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).
But it also concerns the Crescent Star Party (PBB) which failed
to reach the electoral threshold of 2.5% and is thus not
permitted to run under the same name in the next elections.
PPP was the only de facto Islamist party during the New Order
years. De facto because, in 1984, the government required all
political parties to adopt the state doctrine Pancasila as party
ideology. In the first two post-New Order elections in 1999 and
2004, PPP still obtained the most votes of all Islamist parties.
In 1999, PPP gained 10.7% of the votes. In 2004, its share
dropped to 8.1%.
PKS attained 1.2% of the votes in 1999. In 2004, it made a big
leap forward with a 7.2% share. In this year’s polls, PKS for
the first time outperformed PPP. Current vote counts establish
PKS’s result at 8.3% and PPP’s at 5.4%. This means that, aside
from the Democratic Party, PKS was the only party improving on
its 2004 election result.
The switch of ranks is significant because PPP and PKS stand for
two different brands of Islamic politics. PPP is an amalgamation
of traditionalist and modernist Islam, as represented by
Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Parmusi (Indonesian Muslim Party). NU
and Parmusi have different histories and theological traditions
which has led to a frequently uneasy partnership in PPP.
Parmusi is the New Order-endorsed successor to the Masyumi
Party. Masyumi was Indonesia‘s largest Islamist party of the
1950s. Many senior Masyumi leaders refused to join Parmusi.
Instead, they established the Indonesian Islamic Propagation
Council (DDII) which redirected the Islamic struggle to campuses
and mosques through Islamic education and proselytisation. For
the old Masyumi elite, it was DDII that carried on the struggle
of Masyumi during the New Order. By contrast, Parmusi mostly
perceived Masyumi as a point of historical reference. It only
carried on a partial Masyumi-derived agenda adapted to the
restrictive politics of the New Order.
After the fall of Soeharto, many senior Masyumi leaders left in
DDII were behind the formation of PBB which they believed to be
the only legitimate heir of Masyumi. PBB’s lofty ambitions,
however, were shattered when it gained a mere 1.9% in the 1999
elections. The poor showing indicated that the Islamism
represented by Masyumi has waned in significance and that it
would not be able to be revived in the post-New Order era. The
results of this year’s elections re-confirmed that Masyumi
symbols and references are unable to gain significant support in
Indonesia today.
Masyumi approached the Islamic canon as a set of legal rulings
and aspired to write shari’ah terms into the constitution.
Whereas PBB most comprehensively adopted its political programme
to Masyumi, Parmusi showed little concrete desire to align PPP
with former Masyumi goals. In fact, Parmusi’s self-proclaimed
devotion to Masyumi in recent years more appeared as a tool for
countering PPP’s NU-dominated leadership.
Significantly, many Islamists gradually perceived Masyumi’s
shari’ah-centred approach as politically inopportune. The
necessities that the New Order’s patronage system had created
suggested more practical ways of doing politics. With practical
considerations paramount, many Islamist notables in previously
Masyumi-close organisations such as Muhammadiyah no longer see
support for a Masyumi legatee party as useful for their own
Meanwhile, with its propagation of Islamic education and
mission, DDII played a crucial role in popularising an approach
which later was taken up by PKS. In the 1980s, the New Order
government sought to shut down political activities at
universities. This generated a new generation of Islamist
activists to look toward the Muslim Brotherhood for adopting new
organisational methods, characterised by the use of cells for
religious training.
PKS activists thus readily paid homage to Masyumi but they also
questioned the wisdom of Masyumi’s political approach in order
to advance Islam. They especially viewed the open ideological
hostilities of the 1950s as exasperating.
What is more, throughout the New Order, DDII was unable to tie
new cadres to Masyumi’s cause. For the campus-based activists,
however, the struggle for Islam was ineffective without the
systematic formation of devoted cadres. As a result, PKS became
the only cadre-based party in Indonesia,
PKS’s systematic cadre build-up was very much unlike PPP’s
flexible cadreisation methods and its ambition to create
internal unanimity contrasted with PPP’s trademark factionalism.
PBB leaders, for their part, bickered over what political
behaviour the dedication to Masyumi had to entail. PKS, by
contrast, acted on a coherent and internally socialised ideology
and a clear political strategy. This strategy has always been
decidedly pragmatic and accommodative, inclined to cloak the
party’s dedication to Islamist political goals.
At the same time, PKS might eventually be heading in the same
direction as PBB, quarrelling over what political behavior the
struggle for Islam has to entail. Most well-known PKS leaders
belong to the pragmatic bloc yet many doctrinaire Islamists in
the party have increasingly found fault with the view that
almost any political compromise is warranted in the pursuit of
ideological objectives. So far the party has successfully kept
internal fictions from the public eye, yet it is not implausible
that these struggles will surface in the years to come.

Opinion Asia
by Bernhard Platzdasch

Bernhard Platzdasch is a visiting research fellow at the
Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore.

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