Political Islam and Islamic Parties in Indonesia: Critically Assessing the Evidence of Islam's Political Decline

By Tanuwidjaja, Sunny | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2010 | Go to article overview

Political Islam and Islamic Parties in Indonesia: Critically Assessing the Evidence of Islam's Political Decline


Tanuwidjaja, Sunny, Contemporary Southeast Asia


The influence of Islam, and religion in general, in Indonesian politics is said to be in decline. Some observers have even boldly declared that a secular democracy is emerging in Indonesia. (1) There is some evidence to suggest that this might indeed be the case. First, surveys have indicated that Indonesian voters have become more "rational", which generally means they have become more focused on a candidate's or parties' track record and programmes, and the potential material benefits that can be accrued by electing them. When Indonesian voters arrive at the polling stations, they no longer think about religion when they decide which parties or candidates to vote for. (2) The second piece of evidence supporting the hypothesis of the declining importance of religion in Indonesian politics is the falling support for Islamic parties. (3) In four democratic elections, Islamic political parties failed to receive more than 44 per cent of the votes despite the fact that 80 to 90 per cent of people in Indonesia are Muslim. Although Islamic parties gained around 44 per cent of the national vote at the 1955 general election, post-New Order, their electoral appeal has declined. In 1999, Islamic parties managed to garner 36.3 per cent of the vote, while in 2004 they received 41 per cent. However in 2009, their support declined significantly to 29.2 per cent, the worst electoral performance by Islamic parties since independence.

However, herein lies the paradox and the puzzle. There is a parallel trend that runs contradictory to the image of an increasingly rational Indonesian voter who eschews supporting Islamic parties. Despite the minority status of Islamic political parties in the Indonesian parliament, over the past few years a significant number of laws have been passed at both the national and local level of government that promote an Islamic or religiously conservative agenda. For example, the controversial education bill and antipornography bill--both informed by religious agendas--were passed by the national parliament, which is dominated by the so-called nationalist, secular and Pancasila based political parties. (4) Local laws that are highly religious in content have also been passed in many districts where regional legislatures were also dominated by these political parties. The absence of a strong response from political parties and their representatives in parliament on issues of religious violence--particularly in the case of Ahmadiyah--is another example that runs counter to the hypothesis of the declining influence of religion in Indonesian politics. If religion is no longer important, why do politicians and political parties tend to shy away from controversial religious issues? In fact, politicians understand that religion is a very sensitive issue which carries serious political implications. Despite lacking formal political representation through Islamic political parties, Islamic agendas are still able to penetrate the legal public sphere. In other words, unlike Islamic political parties themselves, political Islam is still very much a significant and influential political force in Indonesia.

I argue that this paradox can be explained in two ways. First, that the evidence purporting to show that Indonesian voters have become more "rational" should be interpreted in a different way, and that Indonesians are still very much concerned with religious issues. This argument has significant implications for the literature on Indonesian voting behaviour. It runs counter to the common emerging opinion that Indonesian voters have become more rational and are no longer influenced by religion in making their political choices. (5) The claim that Indonesian voters are no longer influenced by religious considerations is premature. It is eminently possible that the absence of explicit influence of religion on Indonesian voters is due to the lack of religious differentiation among parties and candidates, and limitations in the current survey instruments in capturing such influence. …

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Political Islam and Islamic Parties in Indonesia: Critically Assessing the Evidence of Islam's Political Decline
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