Jakarta, Indonesia – For newcomers, the relative obscurity of mosques and minarets amid the shopping malls in the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim country is surprising.
There are, however many religious buildings in this bustling city, tucked behind parking lots or alongside traffic-choked highways. Generally these occupy a small physical space relative to other symbols of modernity.
It has been the same for most of Indonesia’s political history. Shunned by Sukarto, Indonesia’s first president, and suppressed by Sukarno, a dictator who ruled until 1998, Islam’s pre-eminent role in the country’s social and cultural sphere often hasn’t translated into political power.
“Most Indonesian Muslims are probably conservative in their beliefs and practises, but don’t think they need to vote for a Muslim party or politician to live in the society they prefer,” said R William Liddle, a political science professor at Ohio State University, who studies Indonesia.
That might be changing. In last month’s parliamentary election, the top parties were Indonesia’s secular and nationalist forces: The PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle) finished on top; Golkar, the former party of Suharto, placed second; and Gerinda third.
But not far behind them were Indonesia’s four major Islamic parties: the explicitly Islamic Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the traditionalist National Awakening Party (PKB), the modernist National Mandate Party (PAN) and the oldest Islamic party, the United Development Party (PPP). According to early counts, the parties received an estimated 32 percent of the vote combined. This is an increase of more than three percent from 2009, defeating predictions that the parties’ vote share would decline.
“I cast my vote for Islamic-based parties because I didn’t want to see that this would be the end of the parties,” said Budi, a 40-year-old Jakartan who said he voted based on pre-election fears that Islamic parties would perform badly.
Others were concerned about corruption in mainstream nationalist parties, or economic issues. “Most Muslims are looking for better economic policies and a cleaner government,” said Abdullah, a first-time voter who wasn’t surprised by the strong showing by the Islamic parties.
None of the four parties is calling for Indonesia to become an Islamic state, nor for the implementation of sharia law. They use mainstream messaging, focusing on core issues such as education, community and the cost of living.
“None of the four Islamic parties that passed the 3.5 percent parliamentary threshold campaigned using Islamic concepts or doctrines,” said Greg Fealy, a senior fellow of Indonesian politics at Australian National University. “When these parties were making their pitches to national audiences, their messages were invariably inclusive and universalistic, conveyed with the intention of having the broadest possible appeal in the electorate.”
Historical hardships and lack of unity
About 88 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, according to the national census, but the country has 10,000 islands and 400 languages, and an astounding array of Islamic practises and traditions.
All the way back to the 1950s, Islamic parties have never had any unity. They have their own agendas, ideological and patronage.
“To be Muslim is a unifying category in some contexts, for government and diplomatic purposes, but it is also a disintegrating or dividing category,” said Muhamad Ali, an Indonesian professor of religion at the University of California. “Broadly, there are practising Muslims and non-practicing, or syncretic Muslims. Moreover, there is no unifying Muslim leadership in Indonesia.”
Though Islamic groups played a strong role in the fight for the country’s independence, they quickly ran into challenges and fragmentation in the fragile, early years of democracy.
With the violent repression of the Communist party in 1967-68 and the seizing of power by General Suharto, supporters of political Islam found themselves marginalised. Suharto kept religion away from the affairs of the state and exerted state control over Islam. Preachers had to be licensed and during the 1970s more than 90 percent of Islamic institutions were government-run. The Council of Islamic Ulama frequently made decisions that seemed to reflect the regime’s wishes, rather than the teachings of the Quran.
The situation began to open up in the 1980s, accelerating after Suharto’s fall in 1998, when several Islamic parties were founded to contest the 1999 elections. But they were not unified.
“All the way back to the 1950s, Islamic parties have never had any unity,” said Liddle. “They have their own agendas, ideological and patronage.”
Though these parties joined outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s governing coalition with his Democratic Party, analysts said this was mainly done to obtain cabinet positions, not because they had a strong shared agenda.
‘Healthy sign for democracy’
But despite the parties’ relatively strong showing, there is little chance there will be an Islamic presidential candidate. Instead, the four parties will likely support nationalist candidates Aburizal Bakrie (Golkar), Prabowo Subianto (Gerindra) or frontrunner Joko Widodo (PDI-P) in July’s presidential elections.
Even as Indonesia’s Islamic parties contend for a stronger role in government, Jakarta will be pointing towards another milestone. If, as polls currently predict, current Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo is elected as Indonesia’s next president, his position will be taken over by his former running mate, popular vice governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama. Basuki is Christian – the largest minority religion in Indonesia.
“It’s a healthy sign for Indonesian democracy,” said Tamir Sukkary, an Islamic politics expert at Sacramento City College. He named other examples of Christian leaders being elected in Muslim-majority regions, such as Mansha’at Basyoun in Gharbia Governate, Egypt.
“What’s interesting and unique about [Basuki] is the sheer population size of the city compared to the others,” he added. “I hope that this example will lead the way towards greater acceptance and opportunities for religious minorities in the Muslim world – it will take time, but I’m optimistic and Indonesia is well positioned to lead the way.”