Bahtiar Effendy , Jakarta | Fri, 04/17/2009 2:10 PM | Headlines
If and when the results of the general elections are officially announced, it will only solidify the fact that Islam is no longer an important factor in Indonesian (partisan) politics. In fact, this is no novel assessment. But, regardless of the fact that the likelihood of it becoming less important was growing, the thinkers and activists behind Islamic parties failed to take the necessary measures to prevent this from happening. And perhaps they still do not understand the sources of the problems.
As far back as 1970s, the importance of Islam in politics had begun to decline in Indonesia. Since then, Islamic parties have never enjoyed the same position they once held, especially during the early 1950s to mid-1960s. In those years, Islamic parties comprising Masyumi, Nahdlatul Ulama, PSII and Perti (plus two unimportant parties: Tarekat Islam and AKUI), controlled almost 44 percent of seats in parliament.
In fact, Sjahrir, the leader of the Indonesian Socialist Party (PSI) and three times premier of the revolutionary Cabinet, had predicted that if free elections were to be held in 1946, the Islamic parties (then represented solely by Masyumi) would obtain 80 percent of the vote.
The electoral strength of Islamic parties was also reflected in the executive branch of government. Following the transfer of authority from the Netherlands to Indonesia in 1949, Islamic parties such as Masyumi and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) were entrusted by Sukarno - on several occasions - to help form the government. However, it was only the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI), Sukarno's very own party, which had more opportunities to lead.
Forty-four percent was hardly a dominant political force. But, given the performance of Islamic parties in parliament as well as government, no doubt they were parties of great importance. Indeed, they were a major political force that had shaped and influenced the country's national development.
The decline of their importance began when the New Order government chose to adopt a non-competitive system of government. This regime, coupled with elections where intimidation, coercion, fraud, and deceit were integral, served as the main reasons for the dramatic decline of the electoral strength of Islamic parties.
Collectively, in the 1971 elections, Islamic parties gained only 27.11 percent of votes. When they were transformed into the United Development Party (PPP), they were able to marshal slightly more support in the 1977 elections, gaining 29.29 percent. But, this figure dropped significantly in the 1987 elections, to 15.97 percent.
Surely, the New Order's authoritarianism played a pivotal role in the defeat of political Islam. In the 1999 elections - the first elections to be held after Indonesia was transformed into a democratic state in 1998 following Soeharto's departure from office - 10 Islamic parties collectively managed to obtain 37.59 percent of the vote. Five years later, in the 2004 elections, together seven Islamic parties did slightly better, receiving 38.35 percent of the vote.
But these heartening figures could be misleading.Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, when Islamic ideology was rigorously upheld, post-Soeharto Islamic parties seem to have lost interest and commitment to ideology. Islam appears only to be something formally used as a party basis, but fails to serve as a factor that differentiates Islam parties from the rest.
In fact, two medium-sized parties such as the Nation Awakening Party (PKB) and National Mandate Party (PAN), which owed their emergence to Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah (Indonesia's two largest Islamic organizations), respectively, now refuse to be labeled as Islamic parties. If their electoral gains are excluded from the equation, the electoral strength of Islamic parties was only 17.86 percent (1999) and 21.34 percent (2004). This increase was due to the dramatic performance of the Prosperous-Justice Party (PKS) that collected 7.34 percent of the vote in 2004 - an increase of more than 600 percent compared to what they got in the 1999 elections (1.36 percent).
The results of the April 9 elections are still weeks away. Yet the interim official results do not seem to differ from the quick counts. It is been generally perceived that the electoral strength of political Islam is dwindling. Only four Islamic parties are likely to be in parliament: PKS, PAN, PPP, and PKB. Others such as the Crescent Star Party (PBB) or the Reform Star Party (PBR) would not pass the 2.5 percent electoral threshold.
Together, these four Islamic parties could claim around 24 percent of the vote. Should PAN and PKB refuse to be identified as Islamic parties, the electoral strength of Islamic parties would deplete further to only13 or 14 percent.
Even though PKS actually gained an increase of a little over 1 percent, it is generally regarded as stagnant considering the seriousness of its campaigns.
In all likelihood, it can be assumed that Islamic parties have performed poorly. The main reasons have been largely classical.
First, the inability of Islamic parties to translate ideological identity into concrete programs. This has either created a sense of fear among many voters or sent a signal that Islam does not actually serve as a defining factor in politics. So, there is no difference between "religious" and "secular" parties.
Second, like other parties, Islamic parties suffered internal rifts and disunity. This has not only made the mobilization of resources (both internally and externally) difficult, but also made a bad impression that the parties do not practice what they preach, since Islam emphasizes unity and brotherhood.
Third, the failure of thinkers and practitioners to realize the state has changed substantially from being ideologically driven in the 1940s and 1950s, to pragmatist now. In such a state, material wellbeing is seen as more important than spiritual wellbeing.
If there were any new lessons to be learned from this election, it was that none of the existing Islamic parties had experienced, strong, and respected leaders. The lack of charismatic and capable figures like Mohammad Natsir, Prawoto Mangkusasmito, Mohammad Roem, Wahid Hasyim, Idham Cholid, Subchan ZE, Zamroni (and many others) made constituents turn their heads to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono or even Megawati Soekarnoputri.
In short, unless and until Islamic parties are able to realize these factors and are willing to adjust accordingly their futures will remain on hold.
The writer is a professor of political science at the State Islamic University (UIN), Jakarta