Indonesia's Muslims Position for Power

Despite a fall in the overall vote for Islamic and religious–inspired parties from 38 percent in 2004 to about 28 percent in 2009, and negative comments in the press, a cluster of Islamic parties are positioning to join the emerging Indonesian governing coalition for the next five years.

Indonesia just completed legislative elections on April 9. The Democratic Party led by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono won with 20 percent of the votes and is forecast to win 141 seats in the House of Representatives, as against 56 last time.

There will be presidential elections in July after which a new government will be formed. The incumbent president and his party are in the best position to form a winning coalition and several religious parties are negotiating to join this prospective new government.

The Golkar Party, led by Vice President Jusuf Kalla, won only 14 percent of the votes and is forecast to win 97 seats, down from 127 last time. The Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), led by Megawati Sukarnoputri also won 14 percent and is forecast to win 102 seats this time, as against 107 last time.

The next four parties were Islamic or religious-inspired, won about 26 percent of the votes, and are forecast to win 166 of the seats, as against 208 seats last time. The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) won 8 percent of votes and is forecast to win 52 seats, against 45 last time. The National Mandate Party (PAN) gained 6 percent of the votes and is forecast to win 41 seats having held 53 last time. The United Development Party (PPP) and the National Awakening Party (PKB) both gained 5 percent of the votes. The PPP is forecast to hold only 37 of the 58 seats it held last time and the PKB, following a party split, is forecast to only hold 36 of the 52 seats it held last time.

This data is based on exit polls and quick count tallies, with the latter updated as the results are slowly confirmed. These predictions on seats were published by Harry Su of Bahana Securities in local media . The PKS is forecast to hold 31 percent of the religious party seats compared to 22 percent last time, with the more traditional religious parties losing ground.

Bahtiar Effendy writing in The Jakarta Post (17.04.09) interprets these results to mean that the Islamic parties are at an impasse and no longer an important factor in Indonesian politics.

If the religious parties are so unimportant, why are some observers attacking so hard the prospect of a continued coalition between the Democratic Party (DP) and the PKS?

Detractors emphasis PKS links with the Muslim Brotherhood. But others worry that a coalition between the private sector and the religious parties led by a stronger DP could mean a continuing Presidential push against corruption and for reform.

But why are some public comments so bleak on the prospects for the Islamic parties? The answer of course is politics. Firstly, the politics of news orientation during the formation of political coalitions, which may seek to influence the political game it reports.

For example, warning that "embracing the Islam-based PKS could cost Yudhoyono a second term" as argued by James van Zorge in the Asia Sentinel, despite the fact that the President led the same coalition in his first term, and is a lot stronger now !

Second, the politics of restructuring the Islamic parties and the relationships between them. The old conservatives are fighting a losing battle and internationalized radicals are making gains. But this is not new and the same cycles have happened in Indonesia before 9.11.

Finally there are concerns about a discernable international influence, reflecting different views on how to handle the rise of a new generation of internationalized political Islam, not only in Indonesia, but also in Malaysia, Egypt, Turkey and Palestine and elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The shape of the next Indonesian ruling coalition will shake out in the next few weeks and Indonesia will continue to prove that it can cope with political Islam in a democratic framework.

Terry Lacey is a development economist who writes from Jakarta on modernization in the Muslim world, investment and trade relations with the EU and Islamic banking.