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Indonesia, Islam and Politics in (Post Suharto Era)

Bahtiar Effendy
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Indonesia, Islam and Politics in (Post Suharto Era)

The resignation of President Suharto in May 1998 had tremendous consequences for Indonesia’s political development. It resulted, among other things, in opening up the means of political expression, which provided an opportunity for political Islam to return to the nation’s public sphere. After decades of cooptation and restriction by a “praetorian guard” government, Islam finally had another chance to engage legitimately in national politics. Out of 181 political parties born between May and October 1998, forty-two used Islam as their symbol or their ideological basis (Salim, 1999). When the second democratic elections were held in 1999, twenty Islamic parties took part, but only ten of them gained one or more seats in the parliament (Effendy, 2003). In line with this development, various groups emerged and regarded themselves as representations of Islamic socio-religious and political expressions. This rapid growth of activism reflected an intense indication of “the rising tide of (Indonesian) political Islam” (Van Zorge Report, 2000). With this development, once again, the nation faced challenging speculations about the future of the relations between Islam and the state.Interestingly, this move toward a more competitive political arena sparked contentions not only from outside, but also from within Indonesia’s Muslim community. Although a considerable effort was made either to reassert Islamic interests in politics or to politicize Islam, some Muslim scholars and activists responded with caution and hesitation. Kuntowijoyo, a notable Muslim scholar, was one of these. He observed that the rise of Islamic legalism and formalism could bring harm rather than good to Indonesia (Kuntowijoyo, 1998). It could damage interreligious harmony just as it could divide Muslims into competing political groups and disrupt the essential spiritualism of Islam. This concern was taken seriously by Abdurrahman Wahid and Amien Rais, two important leaders of Muslim communities. Accordingly, they chose to form religiously neutral parties, namely the Nation Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, PKB) and National Mandate Party (Partai Amanat Nasional, PAN). Both parties were nationalist in ideology in spite of the fact that their main support came from the two largest Islamic mass organizations: the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the Muhammadiyah. This, rather than their political outlook, is the reason these two parties are known as Islamic-based parties.Among these various political parties, only a few support the idea of integrating sharīʿah into the legal code—a legal arrangement that would, among other things, give the state the authority to punish Muslims who do not perform Islamic obligations. This was observable in the process of amending Indonesia’s constitution, which took place between 1999 and 2002. At that time, there were only three political groups in the parliament that were interested in reviving the Jakarta Charter, a constitutional measure promulgated in June 1945 that obliged Muslims to perform their religious duties, but was nullified the day after the proclamation of the independent Republic of Indonesia on 18 August 1945. Since they held only eighty-two out of five hundred seats in the parliament, these three parties—Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (Unity Development Party, PPP), Partai Bulan Bintang (Moon-Star Party, PBB), and an amalgam of small parties called Fraksi Perserikatan Daulatul Ummah (Fraction of the Union of the Sovereignty of the Muslim Ummah, FPDU)—could not effect the change they desired. The final amended constitutional draft did not change Indonesia’s religiously neutral legal basis to sharīʿah as they desired.Following the basic tenet of democracy that all political aspirations should have a fair chance to be articulated and advanced, the future of political Islam depends on the preferences of the Indonesian people. There is no better instrument than a free and fair election to measure the acceptance of any ideas being put forward. It is perhaps not widely realized, but this is what seems to have been happening since 1999. Instead of inciting acrimonious debates on the proper relationship between Islam and the state, Indonesians are putting their hopes in regular elections to resolve this sensitive question. The final outcome, if one exists, remains to be seen.

Electoral Competitiveness of Islamic Political Parties.

In spite of the fact that the majority of Indonesians are Muslims, Islamic political parties have never known great success. The collective support of Islamic parties has never exceeded the 1955 election results, in which Islamic parties, as a group, suffered only a slight defeat against the nationalist front (Suryadinata, 2002). The election drew 43.93 percent of the votes for six Islamic parties: Masyumi, Nahdlatul Ulama, PSII, Perti, PPTI, and AKUI. This considerable public support, however, did not survive for long. The intentional delay and the orchestrated outcome of the second election, held in 1971, resulted in a loss for political Islam (Crouch, 1981). Only four Islamic parties—NU, Parmusi, PSII, and Perti—won seats in parliament, with a combined 27.11 percent of votes. The Suharto government, which had taken over leadership of the country in 1968, then merged these four parties into a single entity called Partai Persatuan Pembangunan (Unity Development Party, PPP) in 1973. In the ensuing three decades of the New Order government, political Islam fared badly in terms of ideology, politics, bureaucracy, and institutions. The votes that the PPP could muster in the next five elections ranged between 15.97 percent (1987) and 29.29 percent (1977).

Since the demise of Suharto’s leadership, electoral results have not changed much for Islamic political parties. The democratic elections in 1999, 2004, and 2009 demonstrated that they still could not marshall enough support to be the dominant political force. In the 1999 election, Islamic parties gathered 37.59 percent of the votes, spread over ten parties: PPP, PKB, PAN, PBB, Partai Keadilan (Justice Party), Partai Nahdlatul Ulama (PNU), Partai Persatuan (Unity Party, PP), PSII, Partai Kebangkitan Umat (Ummah Awakening Party, PKU), and Masyumi. It is worth noting that this figure includes the gains of PKB and PAN, the two important Muslim-based parties mentioned above, which are, interestingly, reluctant to be called Islamic parties. If the electoral results of PKB (12.66 percent) and PAN (7.12 percent) are excluded from the total, then Islamic parties won only 17.86 percent of the votes.

The Islamic political parties did slightly better in the 2004 election, as PKB, PPP, PAN, Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (Prosperity and Justice Party, PKS), PBB, and Reformed Star Party (Partai Bintang Reformasi, PBR) received 38.35 percent of the votes combined. Although this was an increase of only 0.76 percent of the votes, the number of seats that Islamic parties occupied in the parliament (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR) rose considerably, from 172 to 231. This was due to a significant increase for PAN (from 34 to 52), and, more importantly, to the dramatic performance of PKS. In the previous (1999) election, the latter party, called PK at that time, had obtained only 1.36 percent of the votes, a marginal performance that gave them only seven seats in the parliament. In the 2004 election, under the new name of PKS, this party was able to collect 7.34 percent of the votes. This electoral victory gave them forty-five seats in the parliament, an increase of over 500 percent.

In the 2009 election, all Islamic parties suffered major losses, with the exception of PKS’s tiny increase of 0.54 percent. In fact, two of the remaining Islamic political parties, PBB and PBR, failed to reach the required parliementary threshold of 2.5 percent. This left only four Islamic political parties in the Indonesian parliament, with a total of 24.15 percent of the vote. The four surviving parties were PKS (7.88 percent), PAN (6.01 percent), PPP (5.32 percent), and PKB (4.94 percent) (www.pemiluindonesia.com).

These figures show that Islamic political parties have never been dominant in Indonesia. Islamic symbols and platforms mostly failed to attract the 88 percent of the Indonesian population who are Muslims. In the meantime, trying to win the necessary support from non-Muslim voters required difficult adjustments. A highly partisan or sectarian agenda would be met by strong opposition. This lack of electoral support was further complicated by the fact that Islamic political parties often suffered internal disunity. Clashes of factions within a party often ended with the party split and its voters divided. Virtually all the Islamic parties, except PKS, had experienced internal disunity.

Politically Active Islamic Groups.

The post-Suharto era also saw the rise of a number of Islamic organizations other than political parties. To a greater extent than the parties, they often articulated their interests in a strong and forceful way, leading others to perceive them as radicals. The most prominent of these groups were the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front); Forum Komunikasi Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah (FKASWJ, Ahl al-Sunnah wal al-Jama’ah Forum) along with its militia wing Lasykar Jihad (Jihad Brigade); Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI, Indonesian Mujahidin Council) along with its Lasykar Mujahidin (Mujahidin Brigade); Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (Independence Party); Hammas (Inter-Campus Muslim Students Association); Front Hizbullah (Hizbullah Front); Ikhwanul Muslimin; and the older organization KISDI (Komite Indonesia untuk Solidaritas Dunia Islam, Indonesian Committee for Islamic World Solidarity).

Unlike the Islamic political parties, the birth of these organizations was not an immediate response to Indonesia’s democratic transition. Instead, their development was more of a reaction to the socio-religious and political circumstances that evolved during the period of transition from 1998 to 2001. The absence of sharīʿah in Indonesia’s secular system of government, in their view, had been detrimental to the interests of Muslims. Issues such as socio-religious conflicts, weak law enforcement on gambling, prostitution, and distribution of alcoholic beverages, and the weakness of Indonesian voices in defending Muslims’ rights around the world, particularly in Palestine, offered them causes for which to fight in the name of religion (Penelitian, 2000).

In this view, it can be argued that the aspirations of these organizations are reminiscent of the Islamic groups of the 1940s and 1950s. This means that for more than a half century, Indonesia’s national elite have not been able to come to terms with the position of Islam in the country. As a result, the status of Islam, espescially issues related to the implementation of Islamic sharīʿah, has become a recurrent issue. Unless a negotiated settlement can be reached, it will continue to emerge in various forms, depending on the situation.

Local Politics.

Since 1999, there has been pressure to incorporate sharīʿah into regional laws. This movement seeks to take advantage of the establishment of a certain measure of local autonomy, which allows regions to elect their own leaders and enact local regulations in many sectors. By 2009, no fewer than 150 sharīʿah-inspired regulations had been instituted in at least fifty-five different regions. The subjects of these laws include Muslim dress code, Qurʿan recital, curfews for women, and whipping as punishment for adultery. Although such developments may seem alarming with regard to Islam-state relations, it is important to note that Aceh Province was specifically given its autonomy to administer its affairs based on Islamic sharīʿah out of political necessity, in order to bring an end to a long and violent state of rebellion.

Challenges Ahead.

The fact that Islamic political groups are by no means homogenous is evidence that their emergence should not be perceived as a threat from a monolithic force (Effendy, 2000, “Antara Substansialisme”). The Indonesian lesson illustrates that Islam has been understood in multiple ways by its followers and has been attached to various interests. This religious symbol is still looking for an appropriate place in Indonesian politics. Through political parties or street activism, it is still struggling to exist.

Despite its reactivation in the public sphere, Islamic politics seems to have moderated in terms of objectives and instruments. Although most Islamic political groups do not pursue a strictly Islamic code of law for the state, they do think that a representation of sharīʿah could enrich the Indonesian legal system. They believe that sharīʿah should be selectively adopted for limited issues, such as marriage and divorce, inheritance and endowment, zakāt collection and distribution, and pilgrimage. In the area of public law and criminal matters, most Muslim politicians tend to rely on secular regulations, as the interpretation of sharīʿah itself in these realms is debatable in the current context.

In the situation of the early twenty-first century, this type of partial accommodation of Islam seems to be a reasonable way to acknowledge Muslim interests while also avoiding, or at least reducing, both fragmentation among Muslims and tensions with non-Muslims. It is a viable option for a sustainable relationship between Islam and the state. The commonly shared notion that Indonesia is neither a theocratic nor a secular state only suggests the importance of the state’s efforts to accommodate the interests of the Muslims. At the same time, realizing the heterogeneity of Indonesia’s socio-religious composition, it is the task of all Muslims to articulate and express their concerns in a way that does not disrupt the country’s structure. For more than half a century, Indonesia has been able to conduct an uninterupted dialogue on the proper role and position of religion in the state. Taking into consideration all the lessons learned since the 1950s, it is time for the national elite, religious as well political, to exert its best efforts in order to reach an appropriate settlement.

The fact that only four Islamic parties, including PAN and PKB, secured seats in the 2004 parliament suggests that the majority of Indonesians may not believe that Islamic parties represent their interests in the political system. This could mean that political Islam may not have very bright prospects in the long term.

If the Islamic parties wish to turn the situation in their favor, there are four steps they should take (Effendy, 2009). First, politicians of Islamic parties should build their capacity to express Islamic ideological identity in tangible programs. They should cultivate the qualities that will allow them to compete against the nationalist parties, so the public could be convinced that Islamic parties have an important agenda to fight for and are not harmful to society. Second, like other parties, Islamic parties need to find better solutions for their internal tensions in order to avoid breaking up. Party unity is a serious matter. There is no doubt that internal disunity jeopardizes the allocation of resources and creates an extremely bad public image. Particularly for Islamic parties, internal disunity will send an impression of failure not only in terms of politics, but also spiritually, as Islam preaches unity and brotherhood. Third, Islamic political parties should understand their current circumstances. The state has changed substantially, from being ideologically driven in the 1940s and 1950s to a more pragmatic outlook in recent years. In such an atmosphere, voters care more about material prosperity and security than about any spiritual quest. Islam has meaning in politics only if it has a practical capacity to improve human development. Finally, Islamic political parties should improve their recruitment process and the training of their functionaries. The lack of charismatic and capable figures like Muhammad Natsir, Prawoto Mangkusaswito, Muhammad Roem, Wachid Hasjim, Idham Cholid, Subchan ZE, and Zamroni has made many of their potential constituents turn to nationalist parties. Islamic parties cannot survive long without smart investment in their own human resource development.

Without a serious effort to deal with their internal weaknesses, the future of Islamic political parties is even bleaker than it was under the authoritarian regime of Suharto. This is a challenging moment for their activism at the center stage of Indonesian politics.


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