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Can Indonesia’s main Islamist party recover from scandal?

Can Indonesia’s main Islamist party recover from scandal?

Indonesia’s main Islamist political party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), has been hit by a major crisis following the arrest of its top leader on corruption charges. Judging by the loud jeers that have greeted news of the scandal, the party now faces an uphill battle to recover public face in time for the general elections next year.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has accused PKS President Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq (pictured above being taken in for questioning) of using his influence to secure a lucrative government contract on the import of Australian beef for a private company.

In a sting operation, KPK officers arrested Luthfi’s aide, finding on him Rp 1 billion (approximately $100,000) in cash which he had just received from executives of the private contractor. Although Luthfi was not directly involved in the transaction, KPK officials say the money was intended for him.  Further damaging the reputation of the Islamist party was the fact that Luthfi’s aide was arrested in a luxury hotel room — with a call girl.

The PKS, which shares the same ideology as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, was founded when Indonesia became a multi-party democracy after the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. Campaigning on moral grounds and projecting itself as a clean party leading the fight against corruption, it soon won widespread support among the country’s Islamist constituents and emerged as Indonesia’s largest Islamist party. In 2009, the PKS won just over 7.5 percent of the total votes and is one of the six parties that formed the coalition government under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Given the morality-based message of its political platform, voters judge the PKS by higher standards compared to other parties. And yet the party has survived a number of corruption and sex scandals in the past. There was even the embarrassing moment when a PKS member of the House of Representatives was caught on camera watching a porn video on his IPad during a House plenary session. 

With each scandal, however, the PKS is gradually losing its Islamic and moral credentials in the eyes of voters. This latest one, which involves the party’s president, is probably the most damaging to its ambitions of breaking into the top three parties in 2014.

To their credit, the party leaders have moved quickly to control the damage, knowing that time is not on their side. Luthfi — who has maintained his innocence — resigned from the leadership post in order to focus on the legal battle. His place has been filled by Anis Matta, formerly the party’s secretary general. 

In his first message as president on Friday, Anis called for "national atonement" to clean up the party’s act. He also warned members that there are hidden powerful forces working to destroy the party. He did not give any specifics.

The PKS is not the only party that had been hurt by corruption scandals. All the other big parties, including members in the coalition government, have had to deal with the KPK at one time or another.

But voters are likely to be more forgiving towards parties that do not preach morality. The moral message that the PKS expounds is not only ringing hollow, but also smacks of hypocrisy as more and more of its leaders and members are caught violating what they preach.

All the political parties in Indonesia face the same pressures to raise money to finance their operations. Most have had to rely on the resourcefulness of their leaders, and along the way some of them may have used their influence to secure lucrative contracts. The KPK has clamped down on this activity, sending many politicians to jail on charges of corruption. Luthfi could be next.

At least the PKS has moved quickly, even dismissing its chairman without waiting for the court verdict.

In contrast, President Yudhoyono’s Democratic Party has tried to fend off the charges of corruption leveled against many of its top people, and not very successfully at that. After months of evading the charges, Youth and Sports Minister Y Andi Alfian Mallarangeng was forced to resign from cabinet when the KPK named him a suspect in a corruption scandal regarding the construction of a major sports center near Jakarta. The party’s chairman, Anas Urbaningrum, has managed to evade similar charges so far, although his name repeatedly came up in court testimony that suggested he knew much more about the scheme than he cared to admit.

The Democratic Party’s public standing has declined as these investigations and court hearing involving its members drag on. Various opinion polls indicate that the party, which won the largest share of the vote in 2009, will be lucky to make it to the top three in 2014.

It remains unclear whether the PKS has done enough to contain the fallout from the latest corruption charges against its former president. The case may be expanded to include other PKS members.

Minister of Agriculture Suswono, also a senior PKS figure, is responsible for allocating beef import licenses. His decision to limit imports of Australian beef last year on the pretext of protecting local cattle farmers was chiefly responsible for the soaring domestic beef prices that irked Indonesian housewives. In light of this week’s arrest of the party’s president, suggestions that the PKS has profited from the beef quota system will certainly not go down well, not only among PKS supporters, but also among the burgeoning Indonesian consumers.

The party may face its harshest punishment at the ballot box in 2014.