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Analysis: Another Islamist party is heading for the rocks ahead of 2024

Jakarta Post - September 21, 2022

Tenggara Strategics, Jakarta – Trouble is brewing at the United Development Party (PPP), the country's oldest Islamist party and among the seven parties in the coalition government, after chairman Suharso Monoarfa was toppled by what appears to be a slip of the tongue that offended kiai, the elderly heads of Islamic boarding schools. It now joins other Islamist parties heading into turmoil in the lead-up to the general elections in February 2024.

Suharso's position as National Development Planning Minister in President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's Onward Indonesia Cabinet was no guarantee that he would hold on to the PPP chairmanship. The charismatic kiai are among the party's key constituency, and other senior party figures were quick to seize the opportunity to oust him.

Last week, the Law and Human Rights Ministry approved the PPP's new executive board chaired by Muhammad Mardiono, who is on the President's advisory board, meaning that the government has recognized Mardiono's leadership over Suharso's.

Jokowi has kept his distance from the PPP's internal power struggle although Suharso holds a key Cabinet post regarding the economy, which includes overseeing the capital city development project in Kalimantan. But it is now likely that the President will have to replace Suharso as development minister with another figure from the PPP.

The ouster occurred on Sept. 5, when senior party leaders called for an emergency national congress while Suharso was abroad. The congress, which was attended by representatives from the party's 29 regional branches, endorsed his expulsion and appointed Mardiono as active chairman until 2025, so he will be helming the party going into the 2024 election. The move came following a video that went viral on YouTube, which shows Suharso telling the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) about the practice of giving money each time he visited pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) to drum up support and get the kiai's blessing.

It's not so much what he revealed, which was public knowledge, but the way he said it that upset the kiai.

In the video, Suharso claims that he was unaware about the practice of giving money to pesantren. He was only made aware shortly after making such a visit when he received a WhatsApp message asking if he might have forgotten to leave something behind, perhaps "a souvenir", for the kiai.

He said his idea of a memento for the kiai would have been a Quran, a sarong or peci (fez), but learned that he was wrong. "Now at every visit, each time you shake hands [with the kiai], you have to include an envelope. This is the reality we are facing," he told the KPK on Aug. 15, at a meeting to discuss ways to curb money politics, according to Kompas.

Suharso is contesting his removal as party chair, which he has called "a coup", but since the government has recognized the new executive lineup, his fate is almost sealed. Next on the line is his Cabinet job. But Suharso is not without his own supporters in the party, and Mardiono was quick to offer him a seat on the advisory board to prevent the party from splitting in two, which is certain to undermine the party's chances in 2024.

What's more

Two other major Islamist parties, the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the Justice Welfare Party (PKS), have suffered the much worse fate of fragmentation.

PAN saw founding chair Amien Rais depart to form the new Ummah (Muslim community) Party. Meanwhile, the PKS lost many of its leaders following a power struggle, with former chairman Anies Mata leaving to form the Indonesian Wave (Gelora) Party. Both Ummah and Gelora have registered for the 2024 elections.

The PPP was founded in 1973, when the government forced several Islamist political parties to merge into a single party in line with then-president Soeharto's move to limit the number of parties to three: his own military-backed Golkar, which won all elections during his regime, the PPP and the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), an alliance of nationalist parties.

The PPP has since lost ground during the post-Soeharto multiparty electoral system, with dissenters forming their own parties. In 2019, it won just 4.52 percent of national votes, just making the 4 percent legislative threshold for a seat in the House of Representatives.In contrast, the National Awakening Party (PKB), a breakaway party from the PPP formed in 1999, gained 9.69 percent of the vote that year, mostly on the backing from alumni of pesantren associated with Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's largest Muslim organization. Unlike the PPP, the PKS and to a lesser extent PAN, the PKB has never campaigned on Islamist platform.

The combined share of the votes won by Islamist parties, excluding the PKB, has been consistent in the past five elections at around 20 percent. This means that one-fifth of Indonesian voters have Islamist aspirations, such as the creation of an Islamic state or the use of sharia. In comparison, the greater part of the country's Muslims, which makes up 88 percent of the population, voted for secular parties.

But 20 percent of eligible voters still remain a lucrative segment for the PPP, PKS, PAN and a few other parties campaigning on an Islamist platform.

What we've heard

A PPP politician, who before the internal conflict occurred had met with someone close to the Palace, said the government and the coalition parties expressed hopes PPP did not embrace radical Islamic groups so that they did not get too close to the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

A number of politicians in the government coalition confirmed the story. Suharso was also considered for failing to tend the ulemas. This situation was then exacerbated by Suharso's remark on the 'cleric envelope', which could erode PPP's votes among santri (students of Islamic boarding schools). Replacing Suharso was considered one of the ways to save the party's votes, especially among the Nahdliyin, during the 2024 General Elections.

Another factor that is thought to have contributed to Suharso's fall was PPP's close relationship with Anies Baswedan. Eep Saefulloh Fatah, Anies' political consultant during the 2017 Jakarta election, is currently PPP's political consultant.

According to a number of PPP politicians, one of Eep's suggestions is to band together with Anies in order to win votes in the 2024 legislative elections. The party's regional branches have voiced mounting support for PPP to nominate Anies. Suharso admitted that he had not yet decided on the direction of the party.

A source close to Anies said the Jakarta governor had attended a PPP working meeting in Yogyakarta through a direct invitation by former PPP chairman Muhammad Romahurmuziy. Romy – Romahurmuziy's nickname – is said to be one of those behind the move to unseat Suharso. "The support of PPP regional branches for Anies is very big," said the source.

Suharso's personal problems also contributed to his removal from the party's chairman position. He has divorced his wife, Nurhayati Monoarfa, who is a House of Representatives member representing PPP. Several PPP politicians had questioned Suharso about this matter, which they deemed would taint the image of the Muslim-based party.

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2022/09/21/analysis-another-islamist-party-is-heading-for-the-rocks-ahead-of-2024.htm