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Islamic pitch sells well in Indonesia's election

Upstart parties inject religion in the run-up to a June election asfuller democracy blossoms.

By Sander ThoenesSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 1999


The leaders of the Justice Party put their money where their mouth is.

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The soft-drink cooler at party headquarters in Jakarta is unlocked, relying instead on a Koranic verse to admonish members to pay for what they take: "If you pay the exact amount you already did justice," a sign reads. "Do justice, since justice is closer to piety."

Islamic values color the party platforms, slogans, and banners of dozens of Muslim parties taking part in the first democratic elections in Indonesia in 44 years. In previous votes, only three parties were allowed to run. One was Muslim but forced to hide its Islamic credentials and symbols. This time they will compete against dozens of upstarts, ranging from mass organizations to one-man shows.

Although the campaign formally kicks off only six weeks before the poll on June 7, lampposts and trees of the capital are already covered with flags the color of Islam - green decorated with crescents, stars, and the Kaabah, the holiest building in Mecca.

The Justice Party is among the most up front about its devotion to Islam, which had been forcefully kept out of politics under the authoritarian rule of former President Suharto but has come back with a vengeance since he resigned last May.

"We introduce ethics and morality into politics," says Nur Mahmudi Ismail, the party's president. "We want to teach citizens to understand their role in building this society, to become honest, to become disciplined."

Lacking experienced pollsters, Indonesians are at a loss to say who will do well. But the Justice Party is considered a dark horse because of its active grass-roots organization, with 216 party branches in 25 of 27 provinces. The Crescent Moon and Star Party, another newcomer, appears well financed but its leaders are distrusted by many Muslims because of their ties to Mr. Suharto.

The Justice Party calls for a role in government for the ulemas, the Islamic scholars, for removal of Western-style laws that conflict with Indonesian culture, and for censorship of Western arts entering the country. Mr. Ismail believes gay activists should be jailed. He defends laws that allow parents to block a daughter's wedding but not a son's. The party office has separate waiting areas for females and males.

Many Indonesians, both in the Christian minority and the Muslim majority, are uncomfortable with the sudden prominence of Islam in politics. Some fear it will only divide the nation at a time economic and political chaos has sparked religious and ethnic riots.

But the soda on sale in the Justice Party's cooler is American cola and root beer. Its founding members teamed up through the Internet while studying in the United States and Australia. Women make up more than half of the rapidly growing party rank and file. While its leaders can get carried away in conversations and reveal intolerant ideas, the Justice Party and other upstarts market themselves as moderate, tolerant, and open-minded.

"No Muslim can suffice with relying on lessons from Islam and ignoring other lessons," its leaflet reads. "Justice should be done towards anyone regardless of race, skin color, or religion."

While some blame the recent wave of clashes between Christians and Muslims on the revival of religious politics, Ismail insists it is the moral vacuum that is to blame. "The main reason is a lack of understanding of religion. The more you learn about religion, the calmer you are," he says. "Islam does not teach that everything of others is bad."