last election in 2009. Their own fragmentation hasn't helped; the election spoils are shared by four political parties.
Indonesia is often cited in the West as the ideal model that emerging Arab democracies should
follow. Muslims officially account for more than 85 percent of its 240 million
people, making Indonesia not only the country with the largest Muslim
population, but also often cited as the largest democracy among Muslim-majority
nations. Some would even describe Indonesia as the "largest Muslim
democracy," although this is something of a misnomer considering that
Indonesia is not an Islamic state (the constitution guarantees freedom of
religion) and the Islamists are not anywhere close to ruling the country.
Indonesia had its own spring fourteen years ago with the end of three
decades of Suharto's authoritarian rule, which had suppressed political Islam.
But even with their newfound freedom, the Islamists have been struggling to
convince the majority of Muslim voters to support their causes, which range
from implementing sharia to making Indonesia an Islamic state.
The lion's share of the votes in all three elections (1999, 2004, and 2009)
has gone to secular and inclusive parties that campaigned on more popular
issues, such as anti-corruption, economic prosperity, justice, and freedom.
Religion is not a popular political commodity.
The large electoral victories in the post-Arab Spring elections give the new
rulers in Egypt and Tunisia a relatively free hand in pushing their Islamist
agenda. Turkey, another Muslim-majority democracy, is also ruled by
an Islamist party.
In Indonesia, all four Islamist parties represented in the House of
Representatives squeezed themselves into power by joining the coalition government
under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But with minimal voter support, the
Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the National Mandate Party (PAN), the United
Development Party (PPP), and the National Awakening Party (PKB) are treated as
junior partners in the coalition, leaving them little room to push their
Islamist reforms. The PKS, which shares the same ideology as the Muslim
Brotherhood in Egypt, is the largest of the four, winning 7.8 percent of the
votes in 2009 and now has three seats in Yudhoyono's cabinet. The other
Islamist parties have two seats each.
Any suggestion that the election victories for Islamists in the emerging
democracies in North Africa would somehow rub off on Indonesian voters seems
more like a pipe dream.
Recent opinion polls indicate that the Islamist parties may
be further marginalized in the next elections in 2014, with none making it in
the top five most popular parties among voters. The field is still dominated by
parties that project themselves as nationalists and inclusive such as President
Yudhoyono's Democratic Party, the Golkar Party, and the Indonesian Democratic
Party of Struggle (PDI-P). Even two new and up-and-coming parties, the Greater
Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and the National Democratic Party (Nasdem),
are more popular among voters than the Islamist parties.
Some westerners, who tend to be more concerned about the rise of the
Islamists in Arab countries and what this means for the Israel-Palestinian
conflict, ask why the secular Arab parties couldn't have prevailed the way
secularists have in Indonesia. In Indonesia, among the Islamists, the question
tends to be posed the other way around: Why haven't the Indonesian Islamist
parties managed to triumph like their Arab brothers, given that 85 percent of
the people are Muslims?
One factor is the constant infighting that has dogged the Islamists. They
may share the same ideology, but not everyone is on board with the move to
sharia or the transformation of Indonesia into an Islamic state. The PKB and
the PAN, for example, are trying to project themselves as inclusive parties and
count non-Muslims among their constituents. They are considered Islamic because
they are backed primarily by major Islamic organizations, respectively the
Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, but have never really pushed the Islamist
political lines like the other two.
Initiatives to unite the Islamist parties into one single big coalition to
contest the elections tend to crash as soon as the talk turns to the issue of
leadership. Everyone insists on leading the party, and more importantly, on
securing the presidential nomination for one of their own leaders.
Corruption is another major factor that affects their public image, with
voters likely to punish the Islamist parties more harshly than the equally
scandal-ridden secular parties. The simple reason is that the Islamists come
across as greater hypocrites when their foibles are juxtaposed against their
supposedly moral messages.
More important, however, is the voting behavior of Indonesians. While most
Indonesians of all religious persuasions run their lives observing religious
rituals and traditions, not everyone agrees in mixing religion and politics.
Some may be persuaded that they are obliged by their religion to vote for
Islamist parties, but their number has not been large enough to give the
Islamists enough political power to run the country.
The nearest they ever come was in Indonesia's first democratic election in
1955, when together they pooled more than 40 percent. An informal coalition
between the two largest Islamist parties, Masyumi and Nahdlatul Ulama, did not
last long as each had a different agenda. The Islamist parties were suppressed
throughout the Suharto years, but when they were allowed to contest elections
in a more democratic Indonesia after 1999, they learned that conditions have
changed and that a more democratic and educated society has even less appetite
for mixing politics and religion.
For now and the foreseeable future, the Islamist parties will continue to
play second fiddle to the secular and inclusive parties in Indonesia. Foreign
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