SINGAPORE, OPINION ASIA — The current spotlight is on the search for a future coalition in Indonesia, but attention should also be given to the fact that the polls have led to a historical change of guard among the ranks of Islamist parties. This change concerns not only the Unity Development Party (PPP) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), but also the Crescent Star Party (PBB), which failed to reach the electoral threshold of 2.5 percent and is thus not permitted to run under the same name in the next elections.

PPP was the only de facto Islamist party during the New Order years — de facto because, in 1984, the government required all political parties to adopt the state doctrine Pancasila as party ideology. In the first two post-New Order elections in 1999 and 2004, PPP still obtained the most votes of all Islamist parties. In 1999, PPP gained 10.7 percent of the votes. In 2004, its share dropped to 8.1 percent.

PKS attained 1.2 percent of the votes in 1999. In 2004, it made a big leap forward with a 7.2 percent share. In this year’s polls, PKS for the first time outperformed PPP. Current vote counts establish PKS’ result at 8.3 percent and PPP’s at 5.4 percent. This means that, aside from the Democratic Party, PKS was the only party improving on its 2004 election result.

The switch of ranks is significant because PPP and PKS stand for two different brands of Islamic politics. PPP amalgamates traditionalist and modernist Islam as represented by Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the Parmusi (Indonesian Muslim Party). NU and Parmusi have different histories and theological traditions that have led to a frequently uneasy partnership in PPP.

Parmusi is the New Order-endorsed successor to the Masyumi Party. Masyumi was Indonesia’s largest Islamist party of the 1950s. As many senior Masyumi leaders refused to join Parmusi, they established the Indonesian Islamic Propagation Council (DDII), which redirected the Islamic struggle to campuses and mosques through Islamic education and proselytization.

For the old Masyumi elite, it was DDII that carried on the struggle of Masyumi during the New Order. By contrast, Parmusi mostly perceived Masyumi as a point of historical reference. It only carried on a partial Masyumi-derived agenda adapted to the restrictive politics of the New Order.

After the fall of Suharto, many senior Masyumi leaders left in DDII were behind the formation of PBB, which they believed to be the only legitimate heir of Masyumi. PBB’s lofty ambitions, however, were shattered when it gained a mere 1.9 percent in the 1999 elections. The poor showing indicated that the Islamism represented by Masyumi has waned in significance and that it would not be able to be revived in the post-New Order era. The results of this year’s elections re-confirmed that Masyumi symbols and references are unable to gain significant support in Indonesia today.

Masyumi approached the Islamic canon as a set of legal rulings and aspired to write Shariah’s legal terms into the constitution. Whereas PBB most comprehensively adopted its political program to Masyumi, Parmusi showed little concrete desire to align PPP with former Masyumi goals. In fact, Parmusi’s self-proclaimed devotion to Masyumi in recent years appeared more like a tool for countering PPP’s NU-dominated leadership.

Significantly, many Islamists gradually perceived Masyumi’s Shariah-centered approach as politically inopportune. The necessities that the New Order’s patronage system had created suggested more practical ways of doing politics. With practical considerations paramount, many Islamist notables in organizations such as Muhammadiyah no longer see support for a Masyumi legatee party as useful for their own interests.

Meanwhile, with its propagation of Islamic education and mission, DDII played a crucial role in popularizing an approach later taken up by PKS. In the 1980s, the New Order government sought to shut down political activities at universities. This generated a new generation of Islamist activists to look toward the Muslim Brotherhood for adopting new organizational methods, characterized by the use of cells for religious training.

PKS activists thus readily paid homage to Masyumi, but they also questioned the wisdom of Masyumi’s political approach to advance Islam. They viewed the open ideological hostilities of the 1950s as exasperating.

What is more, throughout the New Order, DDII was unable to tie new cadres to Masyumi’s cause. For the campus-based activists, however, the struggle for Islam was ineffective without the systematic formation of devoted cadres. As a result, PKS became the only cadre-based party in Indonesia.

PKS’ systematic cadre buildup was very much unlike PPP’s flexible cadreization methods and its ambition to create internal unanimity contrasted with PPP’s trademark factionalism. PBB leaders, for their part, bickered over what political behavior the dedication to Masyumi had to entail.

PKS, by contrast, acted on a coherent and internally socialized ideology and a clear political strategy. This strategy has always been pragmatic and accommodative, to cloak the party’s dedication to Islamist political goals.

At the same time, PKS might eventually be heading in the same direction as PBB, quarreling over what political behavior the struggle for Islam must entail. Most well-known PKS leaders belong to the pragmatic bloc, yet many doctrinaire Islamists in the party have increasingly found fault with the view that almost any political compromise is warranted in the pursuit of ideological objectives.

So far, the party has successfully kept internal fictions from the public eye, yet it is not implausible that these struggles will surface in the years to come.

Bernhard Platzdasch is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. © 2006-2008 OpinionAsia (www.opinionasia.org)

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.