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The political failure of Indonesian Islamists

The political failure of Indonesian Islamists

Indonesian Islamist politicians must be looking with envy at the victory of Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia in the wake of the Arab Spring. The Islamist parties here have contested three democratic elections since Indonesia turned to democracy in 1998, but despite their 14-year head start they pooled only 26 percent of the votes in the 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.