Why Indonesia's Islamic Parties Don't Band Together
Bitter history and a drive for power cut into unity
23 May 2014
By: Fahlesa Munabari


The combined vote share of Indonesia’s so-called Islamic-based parties during April’s legislative elections was an impressive 32 percent of the total votes, a fact that prompted a number of prominent clerics from a wide range of Muslim organisations to call on these parties to forge a coalition in an attempt to put forth their own presidential contender for the July 9 presidential election.

“This total vote is significant. This must not be wasted,” Din Syamsuddin, the chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) told reporters in April.

Certainly, such aspirations should be no surprise in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, where Islamic political elements have been fragmented into diverse parties that have been unable to successfully nominate their own presidential candidate since former President Abdurrahman Wahid’s rise to power in 1999, at the very beginning of post-authoritarian Indonesia.

The country’s electoral law, of course, requires that a party or a coalition of parties must win at least 20 percent of the seats or 25 percent of the popular vote in the legislative election in order to nominate candidates for president and vice president. The 32 percent earned by the combined Islamic-based parties was more than sufficient. However, the clerics’ call fell on deaf ears.

Unable to band together, the Islamic-based parties gravitated toward the two remaining camps from non-Islamic-based parties: Joko “Jokowi” Widodo from PDI-P (the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) and Prabowo Subianto from Gerindra (the Great Indonesia Movement).

Some leaders of the Islamic-based parties argued that their failure to enter into a coalition and nominate a Presidential candidate was largely due to the lack of available candidates who might compete with Jokowi and Prabowo. While this argument might hold true, there are other more serious grounds for such failure.

First, there is the experience of political catastrophe when then-President Abdurrahman Wahid, a revered cleric and a politician, was removed from power in 2001. That episode remains a bitter memory for many leaders and members of Wahid’s National Awakening Party (PKB), which won 9.04 percent of the vote this year and is the country’s largest Islamic-based party.

Clearly, the demise of Wahid remains an essential factor rendering a future Islamic coalition difficult.  At the time, Megawati Sukarnoputri’s chance of becoming a President was high following the victory of her PDI-P in the 1999 legislative election. Yet, numerous Islamic elements opposed the idea of having a female president on religious grounds. It was against this socio-political backdrop that the founder of PAN, the National Mandate Party, Amien Rais, initiated a coalition consisting of Islamic-based parties that was popularly referred to as the Central Axis and succeeded in making Wahid president under the old system of having the upper house of the legislature elect the president (since 2004, Indonesia has had direct presidential elections).

But, the Central Axis – always a fragile coalition at best ‑ also played a major role in removing Wahid from power before his tenure ended. Of course, there were a number of reasons for Wahid’s fall, such as a controversial presidential decree he issued that ordered the dissolution of the House of Representatives (DPR).

But despite the messy ending, the short-lived Central Axis had successfully created a model for Islamic-based parties to band together under a common political agenda – Muslim empowerment ‑ in the early post-Suharto era. Ironically, the Central Axis also paved the way for the difficulties of crafting a similar coalition following the sacking of Wahid. After all, such the political trauma triggered lingering distrust among Islamic-based parties and provided them, particularly the disheartened PKB, with a disincentive to re-enter into such a coalition as the old Central Axis.

In the current presidential sweepstakes the divisions have been played out again, with PKB joining the PDI-P coalition supporting Jokowi and his running mate Jusuf Kalla. Over in Prabowo’s camp, PAN grabbed the number No. 2 slot under its chairman Hatta Rajasa. Two others, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and the United Development Party (PPP), also joined the Prabowo coalition. 

Second, virtually all Islamic-based parties have gravitated toward a “pragmatic center.” In other words, they fall under the category of what political scientists often refer to as “catch-all” parties, eschewing dogmatic ideology in the interest of pragmatism and an appeal to a very broad segment of voters. The term “Islamic-based parties” attributed to PKB, PAN and PPP suggest that these parties draw electoral support mainly from a number of mass-based Islamic organizations in Indonesia such as Nahdlatul Ulama for PKB and PPP and Muhammadiyah for PAN. However, despite their Islamic label, they are far from advocating sharia (Islamic law), let alone converting Indonesia into an Islamic state.

Similarly, the party that is widely considered more Islamic than the other Islamic-based parties—PKS—has, in fact, shifted its political orientation from a pure Islamic agenda to a more moderate one. Like other parties that do not have the Islamic label such as PDI-P and Golkar, these parties speak of democratization, human rights, clean government and the eradication of poverty and corruption in ways intended to resonate with multiple layers of voters.

Indeed, there is little conspicuous difference that sets Islamic-based parties off from the non-Islamic-based ones in terms of political platform and programs. The inevitable consequence is that, for the sake of power, Islamic-based parties are in no way hesitant to enter into a coalition with secular nationalist parties such as PDI-P and Gerindra on the grounds that they are not very different from one another. Furthermore, in the eyes of Islamic-based parties, such coalitions are of paramount importance in securing future ministerial posts through which they can channel considerable resources to their constituents (PKS ran afoul of this system in a big way last year when it  was ensnared in a bribery scandal involving the Agriculture Ministry, which it currently controls).

The vast majority of political parties in the country are therefore too ready to be in power and too unenthusiastic to serve as a formal opposition in the DPR because the latter option offers fewer material benefits than being within the government. In light of such massive political pragmatism, the Islamic-based parties’ reluctance to respond to the clerics’ call to unite and nominate a Presidential candidate comes as no surprise. This has less to do with the unavailability of a suitable presidential contender than with the reality of being inside a system orientated toward siding with a potential winner ensuring a party’s future existence in the country’s political milieu.  

Fahlesa Munabari is a lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at Budi Luhur University, Jakarta and an Australian Endeavour Award Scholar at the University of New South Wales in Canberra.

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