Sunny Tanuwidjaja , , Jakarta | Thu, 04/23/2009 2:01 PM | Opinion
Two contradictory and yet parallel trends are emerging in Indonesia. On the one hand there is a decline in support for Islamic political parties. On the other there is an increasing influence of religious conservatism as shown by an alarming level of religiously conservative regulations.
The question of course is why, despite declining support for Islamic political parties, conservative agendas make their ways into Indonesian politics and policies.
What is important for the people and the future of Indonesian democracy is not how many parliamentary seats conservative religiously based parties control, but how much conservative influence will be able to enter Indonesian public life through politics.
Apparently, the electoral support obtained by Islamic parties in parliament does not correlate positively with their ability to exert influence.
Following the trend of support for Islamic parties, it is common to compare the vote Islamic parties received in three democratic elections in Indonesia.
In the 1955 elections Islamic parties received approximately 43.7 percent of the vote. After the fall of Soeharto Islamic parties gained 36.8 percent of votes in the 1999 election, and around 40 percent in the 2004 election.
However, approaching the 2009 election, survey results have shown that support for Islamic parties could decline to below 30 percent. Based on quick count results, the total votes for the Islamic parties that have passed the parliamentary threshold would be around 25 percent.
If we look at their share of seats in parliament, the trend is not much different. There was a slight increase of seats gained by both the Islamist and Islamic inclusive parties from 1999 to 2004.
However, their share is still fairly limited. Thus, overall, we can conclude that political support for Islamic parties is limited. The current projection suggests that Islamic parties will control only about 30 percent of seats in parliament, as compared to about 40 percent after the 2004 elections.
In contrast to the limited and declining support of religiously conservative political parties in Indonesia, religiously conservative regulations and policies make their way into Indonesian public life.
In addition, the declining and limited votes gained by conservative political parties does not make them behave in a less conservative manner.
For example, no political parties in parliament openly stated their support for Ahmadiyah followers when their religious freedom was explicitly and implicitly restricted. When the anti-pornography bill was passed by parliament, among the big "nationalist" parties, only the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) dared to openly disagree with it, apart from the Christian-based Prosperous Peace Party (PDS).
While there were many adjustments made to the initial draft, the law still has significant religiously conservative tones in it. And until today, as the number of Islamic bylaws in the region proliferates, no political parties have had the courage to aggressively push the government to act more swiftly against them.
These examples show that despite the dominant presence of "nationalist" political parties in parliament, they do not act boldly enough against religiously conservative regulations.
In the end, a predominantly "nationalist" parliament does not necessarily lead to a predominantly "nationalist" agenda or regulations.
How do we explain these two seemingly contradictory trends? One might want to look back to Anthony Downs who wrote An Economic Theory of Democracy (1957).
Downs argues that the distribution of electorates or voters influences how political parties position themselves.
When the median voters are predominant in elections, political parties will need to moderate their policies to attract voters.
However, when extreme voters are predominant, political parties need to put forth extreme policies to do well in elections.
Traditionally, Indonesians are considered to be median voters. However, recent evidence may challenge this perception. Studies done by the Wahid Institute on the increasing incidence of religious freedom violations at local levels; by the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace on an increasing trend of violations of religious rights and increasing incidence of religious violence from 2007 to 2008; and by Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University on the lack of understanding among teachers about pluralism, are just some examples among much evidence of the trend that voters are shifting to the "right".
Recent surveys conducted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) show a similar trend: Around 70 percent of Indonesians agree that Ahmadiyah should be banned, and a similar figure agree with the Anti-Pornography bill.
To conclude, there is no such thing as the rise of secular democracy, and there are no longer genuine secular-nationalist political parties in Indonesia. The fact that no conservative political parties have become dominant in Indonesian parliament blurs the current reality.
Instead, Indonesia is facing an increasing influence of religious conservatism, and the traditionally "secular-nationalist" political parties are adapting to and accommodating this trend by becoming more tolerant toward the push for religious conservatism.
The writer is a Researcher in the Department of Politics and International Relations at CSIS Jakarta. He is a PhD Candidate at Northern Illinois University.