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Religion and politics

Much remains  to be done

by Edith Koesoemawiria
Jakarta, 18 May 1998

Jakarta, 18 May 1998

For Indonesia, May 1998 was an important turning point, quite like February 2011 for Egypt and January 2011 for Tunisia. Jakarta’s dictator Suharto had been in power for more than 30 years. In this predominantly Muslim country, Islamist parties do not wield much influence, but the country appears more conservative than before. By Edith Koesoemawiria

In view of the Arab Spring, many Indonesian activists feel the urge to reflect. Thirteen years after General Suharto was forced to step down, comments made by Indonesians on social media webpages point to unfulfilled wishes for better social and economic conditions for the people, unsolved human rights cases from the Suharto era as well as to corruption and distrust of politics.

Before stepping down, like Egypt’s Husni Mubarak recently, Suharto promised new elections, in which he would abstain from running. But calls for him to resign remained strong. The country was hit by the Asian crisis and struggling economically. Suharto resigned on 21 May, 1998, after meeting with several religious and intellectual leaders – Abdurrahman Wahid, Nurcholish Majid and Amien Rais to name a few. He named his Vice President, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie as successor.

Habibie, a former minister for technology and Suharto’s long-time protégé, had founded the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals, ICMI, in 1990. Yet as Habibie was appointed for the top job, several Muslim student groups said he was out of touch with the people, too westernised and too lib­eral. Others worried about his ties to the old guard or, adversely, the minimal support from Indonesia’s politically influential military. The ICMI did not make much of a difference.

Habibie stayed in office for one year. His presidency actually opened doors to the controversial East Timor referendum, free media and an open political landscape.

During Suharto’s rule there were only three parties in Indonesia, but 48 parties competed in the parliamentary elections of June 1999. A few political parties promoted special interests and minority rights, others proclaimed themselves democratic and nationalistic in a more general sense, and 19 parties pro­moted Islamic ideology.

Golkar was Suharto’s party. The two others that had existed under his regime were the United Development Party (PPP) and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). In the first free elections, the opposition was led by three new parties:
– the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P),
– the National Mandate Party (PAN) and
– the National Awakening Party (PKB).

Election results showed that people wanted change. PDI-P came in first with more than 35 million votes, while PKB and PAN came in fourth and fifth, respectively. Golkar came in second. The PPP and the PDI became irrelevant.

Indonesia proved its wish to remain a secular country. There are two large Muslim organisations in Indonesia, and the parties PAN and PKB were each linked to one. Nonetheless, they took a non-sectarian position and were open to all members of society. The old PPP, on the other hand, pushed for an orthodox version of Islam. It chose the holy shrine Ka’bah as its symbol, hoping to gain votes from conservative and religious circles. This strategy did not work out.

Since 1999, Indonesians have tended to vote for secular reform parties. Elections in 2004 and 2009 showed shrinking support for Islamist parties. Occasional violence that radicals perpetrated against minorities did not do these parties any good, and the attack on Bali in 2002 by Al Kaida affiliates negatively affected them too.

However, many people are frustrated with day-to-day politics. Reasons for disappointment include in-fighting within parties and unfulfilled campaign promises. Moreover, people’s hope that Indonesia’s economic and social conditions would improve immediately did not come true. So people keep looking for fresh alternatives. Politicians provided such alternatives by starting new parties, often drawing people from influential families or the military into their fold.

The currently ruling Democratic Party was founded in 2001. President Susilo Bambang Yudhohono is a former general. Some ministers in his cabinet are from Golkar, but there is no doubt that it is a democratic government.

One Islamist party deserves to be mentioned; it is believed to have ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. It started as the Justice Party in 1999, but had minimal success in the first elections. In 2002, it changed its name to Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and maintained that it had abandoned its hardline position. It started to emphasise issues like corruption and clean government.

With this new platform, it multiplied its share of the vote seven fold to eight per cent. Currently, the PKS is demanding a more central role for Islam in public life. It is promoting its cause not only through traditional religious institutions, such as the Indonesian Ulema Council, but also by negotiating for wide ranging influential positions in the government.

Indonesia’s movement towards democracy was neither smooth nor totally peaceful. May 1998 saw a surge of student protests in cities across Indonesia. In Jakarta, security forces shot and killed protesters. In several regions there were days of chaos with deadly riots, looting and attacks on minority groups. Many of these crimes were never dealt with before a court. The Indonesian people were very forgiving and allowed many in higher positions of responsibility to get away with a mere apology.

Politics in low esteem

Today, many activists feel Indonesia should have achieved more. Warsito Ellwein, who has published a series of books on political education and works for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty, a think tank close to Germany’s Free Democrats, feels that Indonesians still need to overcome their fear of politics: “A democracy may often appear chaotic.” The point is not just to allow as many people as possible to determine who or which party will govern for a particular term of office, he insists, but also actively determine the country’s policies. “The more people involved, the better the chance that policies remain people friendly.”

After years of dictatorship, the idea that politics is bad and dirty has kept people from becoming involved, he says. He travels the country and holds seminars on grassroots politics. Ellwein finds that even those who are active in politics often have not acquired the soft tools needed: listening to constituents, assessing problems and promoting solutions. Many politicians are impatient, taking dangerous shortcuts like simply buying votes. Others appear to promote violence, if they think it serves their cause. Ellwein calls for a code of conduct and stresses the rule of law.

Indonesians want a change for the better in their lives. For many it is not enough that Indonesia has a positive political image and regained its economic standing internationally. Among people today, the greatest concern is about their ability to cope with ever-increasing costs of food, transportation and education.

Indonesia is still facing a lack of jobs and opportunity. Public infrastructure seems to be falling apart. Corruption is rampant, and discrimination against minority groups is on the rise again. Some people are turning conservative, feeling that if politicians were morally clean, this would solve many problems. Ultimately, they might not care whether a party is secular or Muslim; what matters to them is results.