A Heartening Election – Indonesian voters turn away from religious extremism

by Sadanand Dhume
Wall Street Journal Asia
April 15, 2009

Against a backdrop of missile launches on the Korean peninsula and violent protests in Thailand those looking for a spot of calm in Asia may alight on an unlikely candidate: Indonesia. Largely peaceful parliamentary elections last week — the third consecutive free polls since the end of Gen. Suharto’s 32-year rule in 1998 — highlight the strides made by a country that not so long ago was in danger of becoming a byword for chaos and random violence, a Southeast Asian Nigeria or Bangladesh.

Most heartening of all has been the Indonesian electorate’s affirmation of its legendary moderation. The top three parties in the incoming parliament — President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party, former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s left-leaning Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle and Suharto’s former political machine, Golkar — are all nonsectarian. They stand for the country’s founding ideology, the live-and-let-live doctrine of Pancasila, and draw their supporters from each of the country’s five major faiths. Islam-based parties saw their cumulative vote-share shrink to about 20% from 38% five years ago. Mr. Yudhoyono, known as the “gentle general” for his military past and avuncular manner, is the overwhelming favorite to win July’s presidential election.

The most dramatic example of political Islam’s diminished appeal is the tepid performance of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), Indonesia’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood. PKS seeks to order society and the state according to the medieval precepts enshrined in shariah law. The party, which held steady with about 8% of the national vote, failed to make the gains it had expected after a string of dramatic local and provincial election wins in recent years. To put things in perspective, in the outgoing parliament PKS and the Democrat Party were virtually tied; in the incoming one the president’s party, which deftly stole PKS’s signature issue, a promise of graft free governance, will seat about three times as many members as the Islamists.

This gives Mr. Yudhoyono much more room for maneuver in both choosing a running mate and cobbling together a stable coalition in parliament that allows him to govern. Five years ago, when the Democrat Party won only 7% of the parliamentary vote, Mr. Yudhoyono was forced to rely on PKS support in parliament. This time around he’s in a position to call the shots by excluding PKS from the governing coalition and denying it the chance to grow under the umbrella of state power.

Indeed, though PKS may be down, only the most reckless optimist can claim that its political future is threatened. The decline of other Islam-oriented parties makes PKS the fourth-largest party in parliament, a notch up from its previous fifth place, and far from shabby for a party that didn’t even exist 11 years ago. In Indonesia’s decentralized polity, PKS controls several important governorships, including those of the populous provinces of West Java and North Sumatra.

In the short term, striking a deal with PKS may be expedient — it’s natural for any politician to eye the party’s disciplined voter base — but in the long term, as the experience of Pakistan and Sudan, to take just two examples, shows, trucking with Islamists is a high-risk gamble. As highlighted in a path breaking new report by the Libforall Foundation, an anti-extremist nonprofit co-founded by former president Abdurrahman Wahid, PKS continues its effort to infiltrate mainstream Islamic organizations and to replace Indonesia’s tolerant homespun Islam with an arid import from the Middle East. It will take much more than a single election to dent the party’s access to Saudi funding and its network of supportive mosques and madrassas, or to diminish the appeal for many newly educated Indonesians of its starkly utopian message: Islam is the solution.

Since it first burst into prominence five years ago, PKS has done little to dispel fears that it is the dark bloom at the heart of Indonesia’s democratic flowering. Party leaders have long been among the most outspoken supporters of Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual head of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah. Last year PKS piloted through parliament a harsh antipornography bill that legalizes vigilante violence and forces non-Islamic communities to conform to conservative Islamic norms. The party’s attitudes toward women’s rights are captured by its obsession with dress codes and outspoken support for polygamy. In a country long famous for a pragmatic foreign policy, PKS stands out for its emotive appeals to pan-Islamic causes such as Palestine. Among the party rank and file, Sept. 11, 2001 conspiracy theories, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism are rampant.

In a democratic country, PKS has its place — banning it would be counterproductive and illiberal. But if Indonesia is to fulfill its potential as a moderate and modern Muslim-majority democracy then mainstream politicians must not make the mistake of legitimizing the party. In the short term, this means scotching rumors that the party may snag the vice-presidential spot on President Yudhoyono’s ticket. In the long term, it means recognizing the sobering reality that Indonesia’s long struggle with radical Islam is not about to end any time soon. That struggle will be won not by embracing PKS, but by working to banish it to the margins of political life, where it belongs.

[Mr. Dhume is a Washington-based writer and the author of “My Friend the Fanatic: Travels With a Radical Islamist” (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009)]

  1. #1 by LBJ on Thursday, 16 April 2009 - 11:31 pm

    This election result augurs will for Indonesia. The 21st century maybe the Indonesia’s century. It rich resources and large population only need a good and non-corrupt government.

    With a fast developing economy with stable progressive democracy, financial and intellectual capitals may move over from Malaysia to Indonesia. Malaysia is fast losing its comparative advantage.

    Unless, Malaysia buckles up, we may end up to be the poorer neigbour by mid 21st century.

  2. #2 by HJ Angus on Friday, 17 April 2009 - 12:32 am

    Indonesia has a long history of religious tolerance in the main although some cases of extremism do flare up.
    I visited the Borubodur temple during the recent elections and the guide explained that Indonesians have incorporated various aspects of their religious history into their present lifestyle and that is why the majority of them are quite flexible in outlook.
    If you watch their TV programs, there is little of the religious type programs we see in Malaysia and even entire Christian services are broadcast unlike Malaysia where we get perhaps 2 minutes.
    In most cities, it is quite easy to find a church or temple – it is usually quite close to the mosque.

  3. #3 by frankyapp on Friday, 17 April 2009 - 1:05 am

    Today Indonesia,particularly it’s leaders,both ruling and opposition practise moderation especially political decision. Althrough muslim is the vast majoriity in the country,other religions are allow to flourish side by side with Islam .The indonesian in general does not mixed religion ,race and politic nor mix or have special social and economic development for any specific race and religion.Look at the various campaign,huge crowd ,no ugly incident,politicians talked and compared future plan for the rakyat and propose about policy to implement them .It’s a kind of competition among politicians or among political parties participating in the general election. No dirty personal attack among them. No giving of cash and kind among the parties to win votes. These are among many other facts which have contributed to the peaceful general election in Indonisia.In contrast, Malaysia,take for example of the recent three by elections. PM released certain ISA detainees , granted funds to non national schools,gave cash and kind to villagers in the three by election constituency to fish for votes. On top of all these,certain speakers in the ruling BN,made various racist’s remarks to win their own kind support.Political rally was restricted especially for opposition.The rulingBN also misused certain civil servants and government property to their advantage and favour.These and among others are facts why in our country ,the general election is dangerous and it needs strict police supervision.Perhaps our politicans especially the ruling/BN should try following the Indonisian so that all future by or general election,the ruling party will make it a free .fair, democratic and peaceful one for rakyat and country.

  4. #4 by waterfrontcoolie on Friday, 17 April 2009 - 9:12 am

    In the end, what counts? The LEADER who is aware of the needs of the nation based on long term policy of positive integration of diverse groups of people. If the leader forgets that this is 21st century with all its technologies becoming part of everyday life, then we are doomed! In Malaysia, knowing that the educational policy is designed to ‘trap’ the majority of its population, these leaders indeed thought that such entrapment would be successful. I must admit, at the moment, the consequential result of this policy has got some effect; but the younger set is slowly weaning it off their mind. [ that is way, their children are all educated in the West !]
    As it is shown with the development of Indonesia which does not have an educational policy based on such ideology;hence their people are more adaptable in life. No doubt many will agree that given this trend, the reverse flow of cheap labour may soon happen!.

  5. #5 by monsterball on Friday, 17 April 2009 - 10:01 am

    Indonesia politicians are much more sincere than UMNO muslim munafiks.
    Indonesia continue to progress after Golkar was ousted out.
    Since then….so many parties emerged ….and President Susilo popularity have increased tremendously. All Indonesia have improved and advanced under him.
    Indonesia have 250 million population as compared to Malaysia’s 17 million. Not one has a false title..no Dartuks…Tan Sris..Tuns.
    They are much more sincere Muslims than UMNO’s muslims.
    Yes… much more sincere Muslims in all counts.
    Whoever may win to manage Indonesia…you can be sure…..those politicians really love their country and citizens and treat all are equals.
    There is no doubt…race identifications….but no huge out-right race discrimination…or favoritism….comparing to Malaysia.
    17 Million are divide to rule….. 150 million are united to rule.
    Pick your choice…..who is better.
    The lifeline of Indonesia being more democratic than Malaysia is many University Students unions….daringly risk their lives to protest..if ever any government steps out of line.
    Soeharto needed to step down or thousands may have died because of him.
    For that Soeharto did have his people’s interest at heart.
    May Indonesia progress further after the GE election.

  6. #6 by HJ Angus on Friday, 17 April 2009 - 10:15 am

    Every dictator knows when the scales have turned against him…once the population is awakened no army can defend a ruler who does not have popular support.
    Maybe in 10 years time, Indonesia will replace Malaysia as a moderate Muslim nation in the eyes of the world.
    In terms of transformation after Suharto, I believe they are already ahead of us.

    Our leaders still trapped in “ketuanan” crap.

  7. #7 by zak_hammaad on Friday, 17 April 2009 - 10:35 am

    A heartening decision… Now BN has an undisputed majority in the Perak state legislative assembly.

  8. #8 by OrangRojak on Friday, 17 April 2009 - 3:41 pm

    Wah! And now they’ve overturned the libel ruling against Time Magazine when they wrote that Suharto had stolen billions of dollars!


    Press freedom and no interest in bigoted, retarded politics? Does the broadband work? I might have to move there!

  9. #9 by i_love_malaysia on Friday, 17 April 2009 - 4:55 pm

    Dont be surprised that we may have to work in Indonesia as maids sooner than later in view of the way our govt spent our hard earned money!!! May be it is much better to work as maids in Indonesia than serving Nazis in our own country!!! But there’s a hope, a hope to change this in the next GE!!! Only you and me can do this, just vote the BN govt out!!! Have you & your loved ones registered as a valid voter yet???

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