Syahrul Hidayat , Spring Exeter , UK | Fri, 04/24/2009 12:54 PM | Opinion
In the recent election the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) failed to keep up its momentum gained from the 2004 election when it saw a 600 percent increase in votes, to 7.34 percent of ballots cast. In contrast to its hopes of gaining 20 percent of the vote, several quick count institutions have predicted PKS will only accumulate less than one percent more votes. This relatively stagnant achievement has raised concerns that the party has paid a huge price in its ideology to attract new support.
In this regard, PKS faces a massive challenge to keep up its momentum since it is not a centrist party in terms of its ideological platform and "movement character". The jargon of "partai dakwah" (Propagation Party) describes the specific goal of spreading Islamic ideas of social and political framework of an ideal society upheld by cadres who are trained within the web of network across the country.
As an ideological party with solid political machine resembling the character of a movement, its position in the political spectrum is surely not in the middle. While most of the voters are located in the middle and prefer political parties that offer moderate agenda, transforming the party into a big party is not an easy job. It is believed that ideological party, especially Islamic party, will not reach 10 percent of voters; so that easing the image of a very Islamic party and develop a more friendly image to the potential voters are the most possible alternative.
The conclusion that moderation will give positive result in democratic system is not without any evidence. The success of AKP in Turkey in the last two elections, plus the latest local election even with slight turning down, shows that leaving the pro-Islamic agenda of Erbakan's Refah is more productive in the democratic system.
Even where Islamic party is prohibited in that country, Refah's agenda and jargon were believed to be inspired by Islamic ideas. When Erdogan and other young colleagues chose to leave Erbakan and offered more suitable political agenda for Turkish people and insisted that AKP is a secular party, more people are willing to vote for the party as a centrist party.
Different from AKP, PKS tends to apply pragmatic adjustment of moderation. This type of moderation refers to an ideological party that wants to be a centrist party without giving up its ideology and the party still clearly abides with Islam as its formal ideological basis by persisting the specific term of "partai dakwah."
For an Islamic party like PKS, moving toward the center in democratic system is more problematic. The party will inherit the debates of whether Islam is suitable for democracy or not and also the questions of accepting the idea of nation state with "human made" constitution. Answering the inquiries is crucial and requires decent arguments to convince the plural Indonesian society that PKS is friendly for them.
In facing the 2009 election, in order to penetrate the majority of the middle moderate voters, PKS has tried to soften its ideological stands to acknowledge people's awareness. After easing the ideological image, the party also tolerates some of its campaigns to be more attractive.
Image building through media is also applied by releasing different types of publicity. The most controversial efforts to attract people is putting Soeharto as the nation guru as part of accepting the history of the country wisely along with some of Indonesia's important figures.
To be more Indonesia, the party also introduces the squeal of Merdeka (Freedom) together with Allahu Akbar (Allah the Great) during the state's independence ceremony and acknowledge plurality of Indonesian society by having a national meeting in Bali, a tourist favorite place. As a party that wants to be more Indonesia, building a relationship with all political, social and economic power is acceptable under the idea of building the state together.
Months before the elections, the efforts have raised big concern within the internal PKS itself. Some senior members and some other members, especially in Jakarta, are known to be unenthusiastic with the pragmatic approach and strategy to seek political advantage.
The rise of concern on the way of attracting more people and allowing new ideas of reducing the religious image of the party basically reflects the confusion of the party's moderation image even in front of its cadres.
In this sense, PKS was trapped in the situation of moderating its image while at the same time still having Islam as formal ideological basis. Having Islam means that every program and activity must comply with the principle of Islam and for some cadres tolerating some religious principles in order to raise popularity and political support is part of the violation of the religion itself.
PKS' pragmatic adjustment in moderation process for an Islamic party reflects the problem of defining tolerable aspects of politics and democracy. So far, gaining more centrist voters while maintaining its ideological basis has given two contrasting aspects of having new supporters and losing its "traditional supporters." It will be interesting to see the way the party will be directed, following the popular middle voters' preference or revisiting its basic character. Or they should find their own way to modify the mixture of those two?
The writer is PhD Student, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, UK.