Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Scholars in political science, religious studies, sociology and many other fields may debate and offer long answers about whether there is a correlation between these three. Recently, we came across new research findings leading to a correlation between them during the 11th Singapore Graduate Forum on Southeast Asian Studies held by the Asia Research Institute (ARI) of the National University of Singapore from July 12 to 14. After learning about democracy and citizenship in Southeast Asia – and specifically Indonesia – from Henk Schulte Nordholt, two research presentations on vote buying in Indonesia wrapped up the correlation between religion, citizenship, and democracy.

In his keynote address, Nordholt talked about citizenship in the process of the democratization of Southeast Asia. Using cases and data from grassroots and village levels, he argued that democratization in today’s Southeast Asia does not transform people into the quality of citizenship. It is a patronage democracy that links villages to capitals through political parties and electoral clientelism. Strong patronage creates politics of relationship, not citizenship; it offers development in exchange for loyalty to the ruling power, either through kinship, ethnic background, religious affiliation, mass organizations, or political parties.

In this relationship scheme, religion remains a strong entity. However, it is being used as a tool to gain power. It seems that electoral democracy has little effect on the quality of citizenship.

In a panel on Indonesia and democracy, two scholars (Ahmad Muhajir and Burhanuddin Muhtadi) talked about vote buying during the general election. They both used quantitative public surveys, as well as observation and in-depth interviews. It is terrible – although unsurprising – to learn the enormous approximate amount of money poured out to potential (loyalist and swing) voters as well as to brokers. One potential voter in a certain district could obtain five to seven envelopes that each contained between Rp 50,000 (US$3.82) and Rp 100,000.

Both scholars talked about Muslim candidates, including from Islamist parties. Fatwas (religious decrees) that forbid and condemn “money politics” issued by major Islamic organizations seem to be empty appeals to candidates of legislative elections. According to both presenters, these candidates thought that “investing money” into voters would not guarantee they could win the election. However, they believed that if they did not invest, they would certainly not win. With this logic, most candidates in any election are maneuvered to spoil their potential voters.

Both researchers find no correlation between religiosity and vote buying. It does not mean the more religious, the more likely person will not involve in the practice of vote buying. Also, Muhajir finds that Muslim candidates justified the vote buying with two Islamic jurisprudential (fiqh) reasons: charitable giving and “emergency” action. We will explain the two below.

Charity is among the important teachings in Islam that has been institutionalized in zakat (obligatory alms), waqf (endowment) and many other forms of sedekah (donations). Islamic charitable practices have been embedded in local tradition, practiced from direct giving, to semi-organized to professional organizations. Approximate estimates of total annual donations given by Indonesian Muslims in 2016 stood at Rp 30.6 trillion (based on a calculation of UIN Jakarta’s finding in 2003, which amounted Rp19.3 trillion – this calculation excludes waqf).

While giving is highly commended, vote buying is justified as being undertaken with “good intentions” to help the poor. Those candidates who bought votes lie behind a fiqh precept that reads, “all actions are based on the intentions” that they indeed want to give charity.

Another fiqh justification is the darurah/darurat (emergency) principle, saying that in any situation of emergency we may do unlawful acts or leave liability. However, the way Muslim individuals and communities construct the meaning and context of “emergency” may be brought into the socio-political realms. Examples of extreme cases were robberies of banks and jewelry shops a few years ago, which were carried out by terrorist groups using the doctrine of fai (spoils) and a perceived emergency. For those legislative candidates and politicians, losing the chance of becoming members of the legislature may be (socially) life threatening. Therefore, corruption cases by members of the legislature do not reduce in number because of the abuse of this emergency principle, either.

The research findings on vote buying show interconnectivity between religion, citizenship and democracy. Indeed, democracy is a long-term process that internalizes various aspects of society, including religion. As long as religion, democracy and citizenship remain as institutional symbols, stories about vote buying and the politics of relationship will remain around us. Not only will those politicians remain for a few years to come – since there is no serious law enforcement yet – but so will the people who are happy to receive money for their votes. It does not mean electoral democracy is totally bad. It helps support a relatively strong civil society in Indonesia to create a better system. In the end, we wanted to remind you that we do have many clean politicians and government officials who could gradually put value into citizenship, spirituality and morality and someday put value into our democracy.


Amelia Fauzia is a Senior Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, with a Master's degree from the University of Leiden and a PhD from the University of Melbourne. Among her latest publications is Faith and the State: A History of Islamic Philanthropy in Indonesia (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2013) and Filantropi Islam: Sejarah dan Kontestasi Masyarakat Sipil dan Negara di Indonesia (Yogyakarta: Gading-lkis, 2016). Amelia's current research is about Islamic philanthropic networks in Southeast Asia.

Amir Maruf graduated from the Arabic literature department, Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University Jakarta in 1994 and took selected Master's degree subjects on information technology from RMIT in 2007. He is an independent social observer, specializing in religion and community detection.


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