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In Indonesian election, secular parties confirm appeal

Support for Islamist groups appears to be waning after a surge in 2004.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 9, 2009

Looking for support: Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke with journalists after casting his ballot Thursday. He will be looking for support from Muslim parties for a reelection run in July against secular rivals.


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Jakarta, Indonesia

Early results from Thursday's parliamentary elections in majority-Muslim Indonesia have reaffirmed the appeal of broad-based secular parties over Islamic-oriented rivals.

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The three largest secular parties took more than half of the votes, according to projections based on poll sampling. The Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS, the most conservative Islamist party in the race, polled around 8 percent, similar to the last elections. Other Muslim parties vying for parliamentary seats saw their share of the national vote fall. A total of 38 parties contested the elections.

The outcome suggests that a surge of support for Islamists at the last polls in 2004, at a time of uproar in the Muslim world over America's "war on terror," may have been an outlier in Indonesia's secular democracy. Calls for Islamic-based justice and morality appear to have gone unheeded as most voters opted for politicians who campaigned on the economy and the battle against poverty.

Islamists moving toward the center

Even before Thursday's vote, many Islamist politicians had begun moving to the center, downplaying divisive issues of faith and supporting programs to help the poor. Joining governing coalitions has tempered their zeal and forced them into pragmatic alliances with secular partners. At the same time, those partners have polished their Muslim image.

Some observers warn that Islamic orthodoxy still poses a threat to Indonesia, a patchwork of faiths and ethnicities. Greater piety in public life sows alarm among non-Muslims, who fear a gradual retreat from the nation's secular foundations. But the tepid support at the ballot box for Islamist parties suggests these groups face an uphill climb.

"Indonesia's Muslim electorate is not interested in an Islamist agenda. Indonesia is a very religious country, there's a lot spirituality, and this is increasing in public life. But that doesn't mean that Indonesians want a religious state," says Robin Bush, country director of the Asia Foundation.

Since 2003, Islamic laws, or sharia, have been passed by dozens of local legislatures across Indonesia – in some localities, unaccompanied women have been subject to nighttime curfews. Though these laws are often loosely enforced, critics say they represent a creeping militancy. Extremist Muslim groups have also used violence to drive out minority Muslim sects such as Ahmadiyah, largely unchecked by secular authorities.

Such tactics are aided by the targeting of moderate organizations, whose mosques are being usurped by conservatives from PKS and other groups, says Ahmad Suready, executive director of the Wahid Institute, a liberal think tank in Jakarta. This poses a long-term threat to the inclusiveness of Islamic practice in Indonesia, whatever the outcome at the ballot box, he argues.