Bahtiar Effendy , , Jakarta | Wed, 10/29/2008 10:50 AM | Headlines
Over the past few years, surveys on support for Islamic parties have been consistently disheartening. Support for such parties has ranged between 0.1 and 7 percent, with the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) at the top and PPNUI at the bottom.
What do we make of this? Does this represent a political involution of Islamic parties as many have perceived?
This is not an easy question to answer. Traditionally, Islam has been widely perceived as something of great importance in Indonesian politics. This viewpoint has been shaped and influenced by the fact that the large majority of Indonesians are Muslim. According to the country's national census, Muslims account for between 87 and 90 percent of the total population.
By virtue of its numbers of followers, Islam has naturally been regarded as a major source of support for any movements that require mass mobilization.
Historically, the rise of Indonesian nationalism and the struggle for independence both benefited immensely from Islam. In independent Indonesia, the nation has also recognized the indispensable role of Islam, and has often sought support from Muslim groups which have allowed it to undertake items on the national agenda.
This has encouraged many Muslims to form Islamic parties. All of these have been committed to the realization of Islamic ideals, ranging from making Islam the basis of the state (from the 1940s to 60s), to the insertion of Islamic values, ethos or spirit into state policy and regulations (from the 1970s to the present).
In the old days, when ideological sentiment between the so-called "religious" and "secular" nationalists was felt strongly, Islam was used in party symbols to attract Muslim voters. In the country's first democratically held elections (in 1955), Islamic parties -- comprising Masyumi, Nahdlatul Ulama, PSII, Perti, PPTI and AKUI -- (combined) gained 43.93 percent of the total vote.
This was no small figure. To this day, after nine such general elections, it remains the biggest electoral success political Islam has ever enjoyed in Indonesia.
In the second election, held in 1971, Islamic parties (consisting of Nahdlatul Ulama, Parmusi, PSII, and Perti) secured only 27.11 percent of the vote.
Then in the 1977 elections, the number rose to 29.29 percent, but since then support has declined -- reaching its lowest point (15.97 percent) in the 1987 elections. The New Order's authoritarian political practices were very much to blame.
During this period, four Islamic parties were forced to merge to become the United Development Party (PPP) and were prohibited from using Islam as their political basis or symbol. More than anything else, these elections were designed to ensure Golkar would win.
This perception was based partly on the result of the 1999 elections, when Islamic parties (this time comprising 10 Islamic parties) gained 37.59 percent of the vote. This figure included the gains of the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the National Mandate Party (PAN) -- two important Muslim-based parties that were "reluctant" to be identified as Islamic.
If the PKB (12.66 percent) and PAN (7.12 percent) were to be excluded from this statistical figure, Islamic-based parties only accounted for 17.86 percent of the vote.
In the 2004 elections, Islamic parties did slightly better. Combined, they gained 38.35 percent of the vote. This was an increase of 0.76 percent. The improved position was made possible by a dramatic improvement in the popularity of the PKS (from 1.36 percent to 7.34 percent). Again, excluding the PKB and PAN from the equation, the electoral strength of political Islam was 21.34 percent. So without the PKB and PAN, Islamic parties enjoyed a 3.48 percent increase in the number of votes.
The results of the 1999 and 2004 elections were still way behind the 1955 elections. Collectively, however, Islam-based parties performed relatively well compared with when Indonesia's authoritarian regime was at its peak.
Nevertheless, the collective achievement has been undermined by Islamic parties' individual performances.
It is not easy for political Islam to recover, or to function as a coherent political entity. Democratic euphoria has encouraged fragmentation. In 1998, for example, there were 42 Islamic parties. This proliferation has prevented one or two big Islamic parties (such as Masyumi and Nahdlatul Ulama) from emerging. In fact, it has contributed to ongoing tensions among Islamic parties.
The inability of its thinkers and activists to put Islam into a context of a not-so-ideological political partisanship, and more in line with public interests, has only served to spice up the negative perceptions of political Islam.
If the results of polls conducted between 2005 and 2008 do not change, there is a good chance many Islamic parties will not survive.
The unwillingness or inability of leaders to make necessary and fundamental adjustments will make this perceived political involution a reality.
The writer is a professor of political science at State Islamic University (UIN), Jakarta. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org