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In Indonesian election, secular parties confirm appeal

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

(Page 2 of 2)

"When they can't get power from political party, they use the tools of civil society," he says.

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PKS officials argue that they are offering a democratic choice to voters and tailoring their policies to meet the needs of all Indonesians. They deny that their belief in Islamic justice is divisive and point out that secular lawmakers have also passed Islamic laws. But they concede that Indonesia may not be ready for such policies.

"We have to work with other parties. That was our mindset from the beginning," says Ahmad Zainuddin, one of the party's founders and a legislative candidate in Jakarta.

Indeed, PKS is likely to play a role in Indonesia's next administration, as it has in the current one. It is allied with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is looking for support from Muslim parties for a reelection run in July against secular rivals like former President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

In return for its support in 2004, it got two cabinet seats and chairs the upper house of parliament.

A network of young supporters

PKS draws much of its support from young, middle-class Muslims who form a dedicated cadre of canvassers, going door to door in Jakarta and other cities. Its volunteer network and Islamic platform sets it apart from other Muslim and secular parties, which rely on TV advertising and mass rallies to reach voters with vague, feel-good messages.

In East Jakarta, where Mr. Zainuddin ran for office, he estimates that his team reached around 1 in 4 households in an area of 2.5 million voters. "One of our country's biggest problems is a lack of education, particularly political education. We want to have a heart-to-heart dialogue with people," he says.

That dedication and drive, coupled with a reputation for honesty in a nation awash in graft, paid off in 2004 with a fourfold rise in seats in parliament. PKS candidates have also polled strongly in local elections. But the popularity of Mr. Yudhoyono and his emphasis on clean government have eaten into that support, taking away PKS's claim of being the only corruption-free party. Some PKS legislators have also been ensnared in corruption probes, denting their white-knight image and causing a rift within the ranks.

Islamist politicians may have lost ground in the polls but their agenda hasn't gone away, says Sidney Jones, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Jakarta.

"You can't take this [election] as an indicator of where political Islam is in Indonesia. We've seen a mainstreaming into the nationalist parties, and we've seen an effort to reach out to conservative Muslim voters," she says.