, The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Tue, 12/13/2005 4:15 PM | Opinion
PK reconfigured itself into the PKS ahead of the 2004 elections and garnered 7.5 percent of the popular vote, gaining 45 seats in the 550-member House of Representatives and becoming the seventh largest party in Indonesia. It is this perceived growth in the strength of the popular support for the PKS that has led to arguments regarding the potential threat of the party to Indonesia's democracy. Since the PKS campaigned in a non-Islamist language in 2004, observers worry there is a hidden agenda that will rear its head when the time is appropriate.
Such fears need to be conquered and the PKS should be evaluated objectively as a political party. We must be critical in rethinking the assumptions of exceptionalism by which we approach Islamist political parties. Only then can we realize that like other political organizations, the translation of ideology into practice is hardly absolute nor is it static for the PKS.
Similarly, as a political party the PKS has found itself subject to the same institutional rules of the political game. In other words, the transformation of the PKS from a movement into a political party was a significant one. The change was not in name only nor did it serve as simply a tactical move for the movement's ultimate aim of establishing an Islamic state (or worse, as Dhume asserts, an Islamic caliphate).
As a political party, the PKS has had to adapt its ideological framework to the realities of democratic politics in Indonesia. The PKS is not confronted with an authoritarian regime that it must fight against. Instead, it is faced with access to government via a democratic process, and this has translated into the practical realities of bargaining as part of a governing coalition. In other words, the party has to deal with the necessary compromises with other actors within the political system, including other political parties and the government.
There are ample examples which point to the complexities inherent in the PKS functioning as a political party and not just a religious movement. As the seventh largest political party in the country, PKS leaders were faced with the option of joining the governing coalition in 2004 or serving as an opposition in the legislature. Had the party leaders stuck to the static framework of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is unlikely the PKS would have agreed to partake in government.
Yet, the PKS decided to engage with and support the governing coalition led by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Vice President Jusuf Kalla. Party leaders were convinced that such cooperation would add to their political education, including the art of governing. The party leaders also saw participation as a means to prevent Islamic radicalism from entrenching itself in Indonesia as a result of Muslim communities feeling alienated from participation in the government structure.
Internally, the PKS has also begun to learn the art of democratic practice. For example, in the run-up to the presidential election in 2004, PKS leaders had to decide on which candidate to support. A segment of the party advocated support for Gen. (ret) Wiranto for pragmatic reasons, chiefly the calculated chance of Wiranto winning the election. The majority, however, supported Amien Rais. In the end the Majelis Syuro (religious council) voted in favor of Amien Rais, despite strong pressure for the party to throw its weight behind Wiranto.
The government's recent decision to sharply raise fuel prices is another example of the PKS' political education, particularly in the art of compromise. As part of the governing coalition, the PKS had to face the difficult task of supporting the decision even when it would affect the everyday lives of its constituents. The decision to support the government was based on the rational calculation of supporting an unpopular government move for the longer term benefit of turning the economy around and stabilizing the democratic process.
At the same time PKS leaders sought to remind the government of the need to channel the accumulated savings into community-oriented projects like education for the masses, an important component of the party's overall objective of improving society.
The fallout from the party's decision to support the government has been quite real, so much so that the highest decision-making body in the party, the Majelis Syuro, has had to reconsider the PKS' continued role as part of the governing coalition. PKS supporters have been quite vocal in their calls for the party to reposition itself as an opposition facing the government, rather than being within the government. Indeed, such a move would be extremely popular.
However, PKS' leaders have stuck to the need to work with the government for the overall stability of Indonesia's democratization process.
One needs to overcome this fear of Islamist parties in order to evaluate them objectively. There is as yet no single example of an Islamist party that has successfully gained access to government via the democratic process and which subsequently went on to subvert that same democracy. Should the PKS succeed in becoming one of the two largest parties in Indonesia, it would be the first Islamist party with the power to form the government. What it does subsequently can then be judged.
From all indications thus far it is unlikely that the PKS will undermine the democratic process.
First, its Islamist framework does not necessarily preclude support for the democratic process, though admittedly more can be done in terms of the party's approach to issues of plurality and the role of women in the public sphere. Party leaders are already cognizant of the issues they have to address as they adapt to the prevailing process. There are no indications of wanting to subvert the system, but rather of learning and finding the balance between the Islamist model they began with and the existing system of the modern, globalized world.
Second, the best scenario for Indonesia is the evolution of a well-institutionalized two-party or three-party system. It is unlikely the PKS will be able to emerge as the sole dominant/hegemonic political party. It will most likely have to contend with more secular-oriented, non-Islamist political parties in government. Continued bargaining and compromise will remain the political game well into the future. This will serve as a moderating force for the PKS, whether members like it or not.
Finally, and more importantly, perhaps, is the fact that as the party grows it must, in the end, respond to the middle ground of the electorate. The structural dynamics at play will pressure the PKS to become a mainstream political party in Indonesia, but one with the potential capacity and mandate to push for good governance.
Dr. Zulkieflimansyah is a member of the House of Representatives from the PKS and a lecturer in the postgraduate program at the University of Indonesia's Economics Department. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.