Islamist vs Secular Parties

Mar 29th, 2006, in News, by

It's common practice for analysts of Indonesian politcal affairs to divide parties into two groups, Islamist, and secular, but this is an over-simplification.

It is done by using the criteria of whether the party has the establishment of an Islamic state as part of its written platform, or not. Then the votes for parties deemed Islamist are added together and the total is regarded as the limit of the Islamic oriented vote in the country.

In this way those parties labeled Islamist at the 1955 election for example consisted of:

  • Masyumi, the Consultative Council of Indonesian Muslims
  • Nahdlatul Ulama, the Awakening of the Traditional Islamic Teachers and Scholars

as well as some smaller parties. The combined vote of these amounted to 48% of total.

Masyumi was banned in 1959 and the Nahdlatul Ulama withdrew from politics after the rise of Suharto in 1966. Under Suharto Islamic oriented parties were forcibly merged into one, the PPP. In the partially free elections held in the time of the Suharto dictatorship the PPP garnered anywhere between 16% and 29%.

By 1999, the first free election since 1955, those parties considered Islamist were, and still are:

  • PPP, United Development Party
  • PKS, Prosperous Justice Party
  • PBB, Crescent Star Party
  • and a few others

In 1999 their combined vote was 15% and in the 2004 election they reached 20%. Recent polling suggests they have since fallen backwards though.

Andrew Steele, writing on "The decline of political Islam in Indonesia" in the Asia Times draws some conclusions from these figures and recent events :

Islam maintains a more visible place in secular Indonesia than it has in years. New mosques are popping up everywhere, while more and more women wear jilbabs, or Islamic headscarves, than before. That rising tide of Islamic expression in daily life, however, is not translating into greater support for the country's many mushrooming Islamic political parties, particularly the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera, or the PKS.

This oversimplifies things and does not take into account the nature of Islam, its all-encompassing, totalitarian aspect, as well as the history and peculiarities of Indonesian party politics, especially at the local level.

Islam is a total way of life, there is no compartmentalising of spheres like the political, personal, economic, all are governed by the law of God and it is the Muslim's duty to bring about the will of God on earth. Indonesian Muslims, even those who take to the headscarf, are often not very "good" Muslims and their understanding of the religion may be weak. (They have also been subject to decades of government nationalist propaganda that downplayed religious differences and emphasised "Unity in Diversity".) As this changes, as the form of Islam in Indonesia is shaped into a more orthodox position one would expect the political pressure for at least elements of Islamic law to be introduced onto the statute books of the country to grow. Short term fluctuations in political fortunes, though they are fascinating, should not be depended upon.

The largest so-called secular party is Golkar. It's platform is certainly overtly nationalist and secular but it is questionable how deep this goes. There are some (King, D., 2003, Half-Hearted Reform: Electoral Institutions and the Struggle for Democracy in Indonesia) who view Golkar as one of the main successors to the banned Masyumi. It's support base, like Masyumi's was, is off-Java, especially in areas like South Sulawesi, where it won a whopping, by fractured Indonesian standards, 45% of the vote in 2004. South Sulawesi is one of the most Islamic parts of Indonesia and the local (Golkar) government there is progressively introducing aspects of sharia law.

There are many other such examples. Another sharia prone area, Padang, Sumatra, is dominated by the PAN, National Mandate Party, another Masyumi successor but again like Golkar a party that tries to reach out to non-Muslims and formally disavows an Islamic state. Not in Padang though, where the party has not lifted a finger to stop the implementation of Islamic laws by the mayor.

The reason is not necessarily sinister, not "we'll say one thing and do another". Rather it's commonly heard from leaders of political parties in Indonesia that they simply wish to support the aspirations of people in each area. If the people are thought to desire sharia then the leaders feel bound to support them or it. Additionally parties rarely have detailed policies or programs, it's often hard to know what they really stand for. People who stand for nothing much will go with the tide.

Golkar, additionally, is now effectively led by the vice-president, Jusuf Kalla (who is from south Sulawesi), a man who is on record as desiring the implementation of sharia law in Indonesia. And if examining the recent history of Golkar we note that the major faction within it was the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI).

The Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association (ICMI) was formed in the later years of the Suharto regime as the ruling party turned increasingly towards the consciously religious side of politics. While not an overtly Islamist organisation the ICMI's main goal was to redress the perceived imbalance in which Christians were seen to dominate the business life of the country as well as have too great a presence in the bureaucracy. Most recent Golkar leaders and powerbrokers, like Kalla, got their feet wet in the ICMI.

So is Golkar "secular"?

Observers, when deciding the question of secular vs Islamist, are unwise to base their judgement simply on whether a party has the goal of an Islamic state on its platform or not. It is not the be all and end all of the matter, there is more than one way to skin a cat.


3 Comments on “Islamist vs Secular Parties”

  1. avatar Qi says:

    Quite interesting piece.

    I am also of the view that the lack of any clear-cut national agenda among political parties in Indonesia has led to the difficulty in differentiating their position as either secular or non-secular (Islamist) party. This absence, as you’ve mentioned in your writing, has, in the end, led to mostly generalized grouping of party politics in Indonesia.

    Cheers.. !

  2. avatar Karlira Kanakahuko says:

    This is conservative vs liberated political parties. I favor only to liberal political parties.

  3. avatar yudi says:

    Pancasila is our pride.Pancasila rejects Religious Extreemism,exclusivism,fanticism,sharia,Islamic state,or any form of theocracy,caliphate,..I am a muslim who defends Pancasila and modernization for good.
    So,get yourself enlightened,people!

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