Indonesia's Islamic Parties Weigh Electoral Chances

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Muslim political parties, including those pushing for the introduction of shari'a law, are hoping to prosper in Indonesia's general election next month, despite the recent poor showing for Islamists in elections in neighboring Malaysia.

Analysts say Islam has become an increasingly significant political factor in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, since former dictator Gen. Suharto was ousted in 1998, after 32 years in power.

Even the two largest secular parties are eager to woo the Islamic vote in the April 5 poll, and both President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the Golkar Party have as a result avoided making terrorism a campaign issue.

In Western eyes, the issue of terrorism may seem to be a pressing one in Indonesia, but a survey carried out by the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) found it to be of very little importance to voters, unlike issues relating to the economy and corruption.

Yet at the same time, the U.S. has warned in a travel advisory that extremists may be planning new attacks in Indonesia, and the country's police chief also said this week that militants could disrupt the elections.

Leading members of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the terror network responsible for deadly bombings in Bali and Jakarta, remain at large. Last weekend, police seized explosives and made arrests following a blast at a house in the capital, where police said a covert bomb-making course had been underway.

The warnings come shortly before Indonesia holds what will be one of the largest exercises of democracy in the world this year. On April 5, 147.2 million people will be eligible to vote for candidates for national, regional and local bodies.

All parties winning at least three percent of the vote on that day will be eligible to put forward a candidate for presidential elections, due in July (with a run-off, if needed, in September.)

The legislative election is only the second free election in Indonesia; the first came in 1999, after the fall of Suharto. Then, however, the president was picked by an electoral college. This July will be the first time Indonesians have the opportunity to elect their president directly.

Twenty-four parties are running in the legislative election, seven of which are identified as Islamic, including the United Development Party (PPP), headed by Vice President Hamzah Haz, a strong proponent of shari'a law.

Factors helping, and hindering, Islamic parties

In the 1999 election - which was marred by vote-buying allegations - Megawati's PDI-P garnered one-third of the vote, while the combined vote of parties identified as Islamic was around 43 percent.

How they fare this year could depend on numerous factors.

Indonesia specialist Damien Kingsbury of Australia's Deakin University said Friday that a strong reaction to the JI violence, and voters' reluctance to be seen as endorsing extremism, could weaken the Islamic parties.

That was arguably a factor in neighboring Malaysia's election, he said, although other factors in the two situations were different.

Last week, the Islamist Malaysian opposition party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) was roundly defeated by Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's UMNO-led coalition.

Representatives of Islamist parties in Indonesia said the Malaysia result would not affect them, as the domestic situations in the two countries were different.

UMNO has formed the core of every governing coalition in Malaysia since independence, while Indonesia does not have an equivalent single party that has so dominated the electoral scene for so long.

Factors that could boost Indonesian Islamic parties, on the other hand, include a militant response to the war in Iraq and the war against terror.

Kingsbury said Islamic parties would also be helped by the fact they have a strong and consistent support base.

The peculiarities of the election system could also benefit them.

Because the leader of the party winning the largest number of votes in April will not automatically become president, the president elected in July could well not come from the largest party.

(This possibility was predicted in an IRI poll in late January, which found Megawati leading in the presidential race, but Golkar leading Megawati's PDI-P party in the battle for seats in the 550-member national legislature.)

Because of this, coalition-building will almost certainly be required, and Islamist parties could end as junior partners in a governing coalition with either of the two main parties.

The Barnabas Fund, a UK-based Christian charity working in Indonesia, worries that this may see Islamist parties with a relatively minor support base have "a disproportionately large influence over policy in the next government."

The Barnabas Fund said many Christians in Indonesia were worried that pro-shari'a parties will end up with positions of power.

'Attack on Islam'

Kingsbury said because the major parties want to avoid alienating any part of the Islamic vote, there was a reluctance to engage the question of terrorism.

"It's just too difficult an issue to tackle," he said, both because so many parties and top individuals had links to organizations sympathetic to radical groups, and also because "in Islam there is a view that, even if you don't agree with your brother or sister Muslim on a particular issue, you will always defend them."

"Even though some Muslims won't agree with more radical interpretations of Islam, they will also be very reluctant to attack them. Attacks on what we might define as terrorism, might to them be defined as an attack on Islam."

According to Dutch historian and Indonesia expert Lambert Giebels, the campaign for shari'a has been around in Indonesia for half a century, but was suppressed under Suharto, and revived after his ousting.

In 2000, the movement appeared doomed, after the country's People's Consultative Assembly rejected a motion to have shari'a entrenched in the constitution.

Giebels said shari'a supporters subsequently focused their political activities locally, but the movement was now back at a national level.

"Muslim magazines are promoting a shari'a state and political parties are trying to win votes by promising it. In case one of those parties wins three percent in the general election, the shari'a discussion will also affect the presidential election in July."

Giebels warned that the emergence of shari'a as an issue hurt Indonesia's tolerant image, as the West regarded a shari'a state as a hotbed for terrorism. An Indonesia under shari'a law would be isolated from the world economy, he said.

Kingsbury does not see shari'a as a major concern in this election, however.

"The Islamic parties are largely obliged to at least go through the motions of supporting the rhetoric of shari'a, but I think very few of them would try to promote that as the key issue in the campaign," he argued.

The U.S. has provided a total of $24.7 million in assistance to Jakarta to help the fledgling democracy to hold free and fair elections.

See also:
Malaysia's 'Gentler' Leader Gets Strong Mandate, Trounces Islamists (March 22, 2004)

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow