As we enter the elections year, hope does not seem to be running high for Islamic or Muslim-based parties. Surveys have indicated that if elections were held today, there is a strong likelihood that they would get fewer votes than they did in 2004.
The six major Islamic parties — the United Development Party (PPP), the National Awakening Party (PKB), the National Mandate Party (PAN), the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the Reform
Star Party (PBR) and the Crescent Star Party (PBB) — received somewhat disheartening results in the polls, with support ranging between 2 and 7 percent.
Allowing for a 1-3 percent margin of error, these figures are not significantly different from the 1999 and 2004 election results for Islamic parties. Yet in fact, perhaps with the exception of the PKS, which appears to be at the forefront of Islamic political discourse, there is the possibility they may gain less support in the 2009 elections.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what factors have led to this unpromising performance of Islamic parties. The stigma attached to Islamic parties in Indonesia’s political history has frequently been touted as the source of problem. In the past, Islamic political parties were always identified with an Islamic state project.
During the Constitutional debate in the mid-1940s and 1950s, their activists and practitioners consistently strived to institute Islam as the basis of the state. Ultimately settling for less, in the late 1960s they appealed to the New Order government for the Jakarta Charter — a compromise clause making sharia (Islamic law) mandatory for Muslims — to be reinstated. A similar appeal was lodged during the process to amend the Constitution in the early 2000s.
None of these attempts bore the hoped-for fruit. Instead, Islamic parties have become an object of suspicion: The ultimate goal of political Islam is perceived to be making Islam the basis of the state where sharia serves as the governing law of the land. While this is legitimate as an ideological and political aspiration, it nonetheless seems not to accord with the interest of the majority of Indonesian Muslims.
In the nation’s first democratic elections in 1955, Islamic parties did not emerge as the winners.
The two largest Islamic parties, Masyumi and Nahdlatul Ulama, took second (20.92 percent) and third (18.41 percent) place, respectively, after Sukarno’s Indonesian Nationalist Party, or PNI (22.32 percent).
Collectively, however, they gained 43.93 percent of the votes. Considering Indonesian Muslims constitute 90 percent of the population, this means that the majority of the country’s Muslims did not cast their votes for Islamic parties.
Perhaps it is an oversimplification to say that an Islamic state project is the root cause of the alarming position of Islamic parties — after all, the abandonment of the cause did not automatically make Islamic parties more popular, either. When the New Order administration came to power in 1968, not one Islamic party felt it was necessary to develop the idea of an Islamic state.
This religious-political stance continued until the Soeharto regime crumbled in 1998.
Undoubtedly, the authoritarian nature of the Soeharto regime served to discourage Muslim activists from entertaining the idea of an Islamic state.
But it was not only the coercive measures of the New Order administration that made Muslim political activists abandon the Islamic state idea. During this period, more substantive Islamic political ideas and practices were in the making, where the notions of justice, egalitarianism and equality were emphasized more than the formalist ones. This encouraged Muslims to detach themselves from ideological and symbolic partisanship. Quite naturally, it was the Islamic parties that suffered the most from this intellectual transformation.
Put together, these two factors led more Muslims to support non-Islamic parties, especially the Golkar Party. The inability to compete with Golkar in translating Islamic principles or ethos into practical programs, perceived as relevant to public interests, only exacerbated the declining support of Islamic parties.
Obviously, one can always argue that authoritarianism played a major role in the decline of support for Islamic parties during the New Order government. This argument is no longer valid given the performance of Islamic par-ties in post-1998 Indonesia. Like those in 1955, Islamic parties are not performing well individually.
Of the 10 Islamic parties represented in the parliament, only three can be considered “respectable” parties — the PKB, the PPP and the PAN. Still, however, they are only mid-sized parties, far behind the strength of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar.
Their individual performances worsened in the 2004 elections, with the exception of the PKS, which gained a remarkable increase in support from 1,436,565 votes (seven seats) to 8,325,020 votes (45 seats). Even though the PKS is the most ideologically oriented Islamic party, it is nonetheless perceived as the most promising. This perception is based mainly on the image that the PKS has managed to create: Becoming a “public service” party. It was through this political branding that the party attracted more support.
There are several reasons Islamic and Muslim-based parties do not seem to have great prospects for next year’s elections. Of course, some kind of political overhaul is needed to make Islamic parties more saleable. Regardless of their official trademark as Islamic parties, their thinkers and activists need to reflect, and finally decide, on whether Islamic parties should remain exclusively an arm for the few (party constituents), or become a vehicle for the many (Indonesian society in general).
But, of course, this is a long-range solution. For the 2009 elections, there is no easy answer for Islamic parties other than to form a meaningful coalition. This is not an easy task, and perhaps too difficult to turn into reality. But their collective strength (37.59 percent in 1999 and 38.35 percent in 2004) clearly indicates that they could serve as a delicate balance to the country’s polarized presidential politics — B.J. Habibie versus Megawati in 1999, and Megawati and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2004.
This is if Islamic parties want to make substantial, meaningful changes. Otherwise, individually they can hope for little more than to be a supporter of either Megawati or Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The writer is a professor of political science at the State Islamic University (UIN), Jakarta.