In Indonesian election, secular parties confirm appeal

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

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.
Yusuf Ahmad/Reuters
Muslim women in South Sulawesi province voted Thursday in Indonesia's third elections since 1998. Islamist parties enjoyed a surge of support in 2004 polls, but this time around some saw their share of the national vote fall.

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

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.

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

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.

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