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Islamists lose in Indonesian polls

NOW that the dust has settled, Indonesians are counting the cost of the latest elections in the country. With voter turnout rather low — hovering around 40% in some regions — the parties that were sidelined have already begun to complain and bicker about the validity of the results.


Voting in the sleepy end of Surakarta (Pic by Farish A Noor)

All in all, it is clear that the party that has made the biggest gains is the Partai Demokrat (PD or Democratic Party) led by incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. PD’s tally of the votes on a national level exceeded 20%, making it the biggest party in the upcoming Indonesian Parliament.

Among the other parties that came close were the Partai Demokrasi Indonesia-Perjuangan (PDI-P) of Megawati Soekarnoputri, and Muhammad Jusuf Kalla’s Golkar. The Islamists of Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS) managed to retain its standing with around 8% of votes.

Among the other top 10 parties that made it were Gerindra and Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB). However, with less than 10% each, they can only hope to play the role of influential decision-makers in the run-up to the long and convoluted horse-trading process where the parties will cobble up coalitions to rule the roost in Parliament.

Thanks to the voter threshold of 2.5%, many of the 39 parties that contested have been marginalised altogether. This comes as a welcome relief for many Indonesians fed up with the idea of choosing too many parties, some of which were regional-based.


End of the road for Gerindra? (Pic by Farish A Noor)

Tame reaction

Analysts have wondered aloud about how and why the public’s reaction to the elections have been so tame this time round. Indonesia’s “Pesta Demokrasi” did not garner the support and enthusiasm that many had expected.

International Centre for Islam and Pluralism’s Shafie Anwar says, “The people of Indonesia seem less interested in politics because they did not believe in the electoral promises of the candidates themselves. For the elections of 2009, the public perception was that most of the candidates lacked professionalism and experience, and the level of political awareness and political education has dropped due to the rise in the level of money politics as well.”

In fact, it was noted by some that the most cynical voters were precisely the ones who were politically savvy. Prof Martin Van Bruinessen of Utrecht University, who was present in Indonesia during the elections, notes as much.

“The huge number of parties had something to do with the lacklustre voting, as this merely confused the voters. There were no clear differences in what the leaders were saying, and no clear-cut choices to be made. The level of political education was therefore irrelevant, as the most politically educated people chose not to vote at all,” he says.

For senior analyst Dr Rizal Sukma of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, there was consequently “a general feeling among the voters that the politicians could not be trusted, and so why bother? The economic downturn has also affected public perception, and has distracted the attention of the public from political matters.”

In the absence of clear ideological divisions and distinctions between the parties, Indonesia’s current ideological landscape is an interesting, albeit somewhat homogenous one.

Many of the parties such as Gerindra and Hanura are led by ex-generals Prabowo Subianto and Wiranto who present themselves as Indonesian nationalists. Yet the appeal of such parties lies mainly in the call to restore Indonesia’s pride and standing in the world, with little institutional programmes to support such calls.


Casting their vote at the ballot boxes (Pic by Farish A Noor)

The Islamist parties

There is also a vast swathe of Islamist parties known by their acronyms of PKS, PKB, PPP, PBB and others, which can be loosely grouped together as wanting a more Islamic approach to Indonesian politics. However, the performance of the Islamist parties, with the exception of the PKS, would indicate that political Islam’s appeal to Indonesians is waning.

Dr Mohd Nur Ichwan of the Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University in Jogjakarta notes that the results of the elections “demonstrated that religious edicts (fatwa) can no longer deliver election results for the Islamists. Despite the calls for Muslim unity, Indonesians did not endorse the Islamist parties.”

Apart from the PKS, PAN and PKB, most of the Islamic parties put together did not even get 20% of the votes.

Similar observations are offered by foreign analysts like Robin Bush of the Asia Foundation, who noted that “Indonesian voters have shown again that they are pragmatic and realistic in their choices, who weighed stability and economics over sectarianism and religious politics instead.”

So what will this mean for the new parliamentary line-up and the presidential elections in July? For a start, the Indonesian Parliament will be dominated by mainly centrist, nationalist, secular parties that are less focused on issues such as hudud and syariah. Instead, these parties will devote more attention to real-life issues such as reviving the Indonesian economy and having stable governance.

In this regard, Susilo’s PD is enjoying a truly impressive advantage thanks to the general perception that as president, he did a good job in restoring order to the country. It is interesting to note, for instance, that one province where the PD did extremely well was Aceh, where the PD gained more than 40% of the votes.


Susilo Bambang (Source: presidensby.info)
Susilo is indeed credited by many as being the president who managed to broker the peace deal that restored order to Aceh, and who helped the region recover after the devastating tsunami of 2004.

But gaining more than one-fifth of the seats in parliament is not going to be enough for Susilo and his party to gain control and for him to retain his presidency in the biggest democracy in Southeast Asia.

Susilo now has to seek a running mate who will run as his vice-presidential candidate for the first round of the presidential elections in July. The back door discussions and negotiations are already beginning in earnest in Jakarta among all the leaders of the respective parties.


Dr Farish A Noor is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore and affiliated professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia. He is also the co-founder of The Other Malaysia website.

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