Beware Who Your Friends Are

The growing conventional wisdom is that last week's 2009 legislative elections were a resounding success. The wisdom holds that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party was a clear winner and, because his party is closely identified with the president, their victory is a sure sign the incumbent is more than likely to win a second term in office.

Campaign advisers to Yudhoyono have been speculating about the emergence of a "bandwagon" effect, whereby political parties of different stripes will soon start lining up to form a coalition with the purported front-runner, hence virtually guaranteeing a resounding mandate for Yudhoyono to lead the country until 2014.

Ostensibly, this yet-to-be-seen rainbow coalition — with the Democratic Party as its senior partner — will give the president majority control over the national legislature, enabling him to pursue and realize a more ambitious reform program than was previously possible.

A compelling story, indeed. Within 24 hours of the exit poll results being announced, Time magazine went so far as to call the elections a sure sign of success for Indonesia's flowering democracy. Foreign governments have joined the chorus, congratulating the Indonesian government once again for managing to hold fair and transparent elections.

Before the optimists start popping the champagne corks, however, they should pay more attention to the warning signs that troubled waters could lie ahead. First, there is the risk of a rising consensus that the elections were illegitimate as a result of a combination of gross incompetence by the General Elections Commission and systematic fraud. Second, the presence of Islamist parties inside Yudhoyono's coalition — which now seems imminent — could taint the president's image and broad appeal before voters, turning the elections into an ideological battle between die-hard secularists and religious fundamentalists.

Less than a week has passed since the elections, and more than 500 complaints of irregularities and fraud across more than 30 provinces have been lodged with the Elections Supervisory Board. In some cases, the dead voted. In other cases, people who had already moved to a different address reappeared to cast their vote. Fictional names were created and registered, and those same fictional characters cast their votes. As the manual count proceeds there will surely be many more cases filed.

The question is, can the government reasonably and credibly handle a deluge of charges that the elections were rigged? Given the fact that preparations for the elections themselves were so poor, there is no good reason to believe the government is suitably prepared to handle disputes. As a harbinger of how the cases will be administered, listen to Jimly Assiddique, head of the Constitutional Court, who recently said, "The elections will probably be seen as illegitimate, but that's OK. What is important is that they are declared legal."

Secularists are watching SBY in morbid fascination to see if he betrays his principles for power

If Assiddique actually believes legal niceties will keep the critics at bay, he could be in for some nasty surprises. Already there are opposition parties planning to form a loose coalition to contest the results of the elections; the most vocal ones, such as Wiranto of the People's Conscience Party, or Hanura, and Prabowo Subianto of the Great Indonesian Movement Party, or Gerindra, are now grouping around former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, who, according to various sources, is livid.

There is a high likelihood that Yudhoyono's party will be looking to make coalition deals as quickly as possible, perhaps driven by the belief that once they have several parties signed up, they can more credibly point their collective fingers at the opposition and claim they are nothing more than a bunch of sore losers. Of course, if a Yudhoyono coalition is to be successful in shaming the opposition into accepting the results and moving on toward July's elections without much ado, his strategists must first appease Megawati and her ardent supporters. Given the animosity Megawati has for Yudhoyono, there it little chance of that happening.


Still, even if the worst does not come to pass and the Javanese preference for avoiding conflict prevails, Indonesia watchers should be mindful of another witches' brew that could put a severe damper on investor confidence and, ultimately, the economy: the rise of Islamism in the Presidential Palace.

Discussions are now underway to forge a coalition with the fundamentalist-leaning Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS. Most Democratic Party insiders are saying they would not be opposed to the coalition, and senior PKS officials have confirmed that a deal will be made with the president. Other Islamic parties, more moderate than the PKS — such as the United Development Party, or PPP, and the National Mandate Party, or PAN, may also join the coalition, thereby bolstering Yudhoyono's chances of winning over the hearts of voters with a pious bent.

To state that Yudhoyono is taking a huge risk in playing the Islamic card should be obvious, but evidently it is not a risk in the mind of the president. Though he is aware of the fears of the majority of voters that the PKS has a hidden agenda to create an Islamic state, Yudhoyono believes — or better said, he wants to believe — that the PKS is firmly on the path to becoming a moderate, centrist party.

It is hard to fathom how Yudhoyono could be so naive. But this is exactly the Orwellian world of misinformation and denial of truth that the PKS would like Indonesians to subscribe to, where a fundamentalist Islamist party magically becomes a supporter of democracy, free markets and secularism.

This is in spite of the fact that the PKS, by its own admission, owes its original inspiration to radical Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. Numerous credible sources also point to links between the party and Hizbut Tahrir, an international Pan-Islamist organization from Palestine that rejects democracy and aspires to create a global caliphate, first by developing secret cells to infiltrate governments in Muslim countries and then imposing Islamic laws. Finally, there are also stories of ex-PKS members who confess that notorious terrorist figures such as Hambali of Jemaah Islamiyah once had close relations with PKS officials.

With such a dark history, Indonesians would be correct to be distrustful of the party's claims of transmogrifying itself into a party of moderation. When was the last time a religious party of any persuasion — Islamic, Christian or Jewish — showed any signs of tolerance for those outside their own faith and strict adherence to ancient scriptures? And if the PKS has truly become more moderate over time, then why was the party the main author and protagonist of last year's antipornography law that, everybody knows, is nothing less than a thinly veiled attempt to impose Shariah law?

Luckily, the irony of a coalition between the PKS and the president is not missing in the minds of most Indonesians. Opposition parties PDI-P and Gerindra, which have a strong commitment to secularism, are also watching in morbid fascination as Yudhoyono looks to betray his principles for the sake of power. Thankfully, leaders such as Megawati Sukarnoputri know that fundamentalism and the moral absolutism that it entails is antithetical to the precepts of democracy. Without a doubt, the PKS-Democratic Party pairing will open the door wide for an opposition coalition of nationalist-secular parties to vehemently criticize the president for his willingness to share power with a minority Islamist party.

Is this what the electorate bargained for when they voted for Yudhoyono's party? Probably not. Indonesians might consequently be given good reason to pause and reflect on what a second term for Yudhoyono could mean for their future. And Yudhoyono himself would be well advised to consider Yogi Berra's dictum, "It ain't over till it's over," before he invites the fundamentalists to join him as he reaches for power once again.

James van Zorge is a Jakarta-based political analyst. Reprinted with permission of the Jakarta Globe.