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PKS graft case and the loss of moderate Islam in Indonesia?

  • Syahrul Hidayat

Exeter, UK | Tue, February 5 2013 | 09:49 am

The latest corruption case revealed by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has shocked the country, largely because it involves the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which had no significant record of corruption.

More than that, the case involves one of the most respected symbols of the party; its chairman. Until recently, probity was a very significant selling point for the party in attracting voters.

Therefore, many believe the KPK arrest of the former PKS chairman Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq marks an end for the party because many of its supporters will abandon the party in the 2014 elections.

While the possibility of losing credibility is understandable, the possibility of PKS extinction is difficult to accept at least based on the two following arguments.

The significance of the PKS in Indonesian democracy stretches far beyond the Indonesian border.

As an Islamic party, it represents the argument that Islamic elements can work in a democracy with few problems.

As long as it can exist in Indonesian politics it will prove that Bernard Lewis is wrong to argue that Islam is the source of the democratic deficit in the Middle East.

The Middle East has been seen as the most pertinent example of how Islam can be viewed in relation to democracy and its reputation is not too convincing in the eyes of many scholars, as Lewis argues. The Arab Spring brings a new hope that the fall of authoritarian or semi-totalitarian regimes will be replaced by democratic forces.

However, after two years of revolution the situation in the region is still in flux. Tunisia has shown positive developments despite a strong challenge from Salafist groups. Libya is still struggling with armed militia groups that will not cede control to the government.

The most important country during this period, Egypt, has been suffering recently from constitutional deadlock and severe clashes between political groups after a relatively successful presidential election.

The Freedom and Justice Party, the party of Ikhwanul Muslimin, has had difficulty in steering the democratic transition. It has come in for criticism and has met opposition especially after announcing a decree on Nov. 22 last year that elevated Mohammed Mursi to a seemingly unchallengeable position.

Although the decree was declared based on the Constitution and was justified as preventing a possible coup and saving the revolution, the fact remains that grabbing all power into his hands, even temporarily, violated democratic standards.

For Laura Guazzone, non-Arab cases of democracy are worth examination as the best alternative for Islam and democracy.

Indonesian democracy through the PKS stood a good chance of becoming a reference for the Islamic world in the absence, so far, of a working Islamic party in a relatively stable democracy.

Many scholars such as James Piscatori and Fawaz Gerges have also mentioned the importance of Indonesia in the discourse on Islam and democracy on many occasions and countries in the Middle East are recommended to look at
Indonesian democracy.

Of course an Indonesian model of democracy without the PKS would obviously dismantle this discourse on Islam and democracy.

Another reason why the PKS remains important in Indonesian politics is its adaptation to the rules of democracy. The party has changed its initial stance as a relatively conservative Islamic party in the 1999 election under the banner of the PK (Justice Party).

An insignificant vote encouraged the elites to be more moderate and to move to the center of the Indonesian political spectrum by offering issues relevant to the voting public.

The election of 2004 was a huge success and the party wanted to develop into becoming a major party. However, the 2009 election saw stagnation as a result of too aggressive moderation driven by some party elites.

Although the party accepted the result and declared it a success having gained more seats in the House of Representatives, for those within the party elites who planned and drove the approach it could be seen as “a failure” as it lost significant votes in big cities. The PKS is still a middle-ranking party and it has failed to even offer its members a candidate for vice president.

That process can be seen as evidence that democracy has been influencing the PKS’ position from conservative to more accommodative of people’s preferences. Although it failed to find an appropriate formula in 2009 to achieve the balance between ideology and voters’ demands, the party’s willingness to seek different approaches in the electoral process is a good sign of democracy’s influence.

This process of democracy’s influence can also be seen following the defeat of its Jakarta gubernatorial candidate Hidayat Nur Wahid last year. After the defeat, the party understood that it needed to make significant efforts to gain public sympathy by maximizing its previous and successful image as a clean party that had been so effective in 2004.

Therefore, Hidayat was appointed the head of the party’s faction at the House and so far he has tried to be outspoken in the media stressing the party’s integrity. His appointment is a good sign of how the party elites understand the need to consider the public’s preferences despite internal fighting among the party elites.

Before the corruption case involving Luthfi, the influence of democracy worked in PKS and it will be interesting to see the party’s performance in two local elections in North Sumatra and West Java later this year. In this context, there is a “healthy process” within the party of developing its approach toward the democratic process as a whole, pushing the PKS to conduct one of the fundamental elements of moderation: reducing ideological adherence and taking issues of direct concern to the electorate seriously.

The graft case simply disrupts this ongoing process. It will hinder the ongoing process that works naturally to shape the moderate basis of the PKS if the party then fails to pass the electoral threshold.

The PKS’ survival is apparently important as evidence that the project of moderation is taking place with the strong support of voters. Otherwise, the argument that democratic means are not worth considering will simply get stronger and this could be transformed into a justification for violence methods.

Victory in local elections in West Java and North Sumatra will have a significant impact on the party’s confidence ahead of the 2014 election. In order to increase the chances of survival, a radical move to convince the public that corrupt or immoral members and elites have been eliminated from the party is also necessary.

Presenting its commitment to a more conservative, Islamic image similar to 1999 but with proportionate accommodation of voters’ demands as shown in 2004 is likely to be more effective.

At this stage, the party’s answer has been to appoint Anis Matta as the chairman in place of Luthfi. Considering Anis’ role in directing the 2009 campaign, it is unlikely that PKS will offer a more “conservative” image and approach to counter the corruption case. He may be influential and respected internally, but the public have preferences that an overly pragmatic political Islam may have difficulties in understanding or appreciating.

If this premise turns out to be true, in the wider perspective there is a potential loss of Indonesia’s developing model of a system that can shape an Islamic movement within a democratic regime. No matter who has caused this disruption the consequences will be great and may be hard to bear.

The writer is honorary research fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter UK and lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of Indonesia.


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