Giora Eliraz – Amid of the hectic atmosphere of Indonesian politics preceding the elections of April 2019, eyes were almost exclusively focused on the Jokowi-Prabowo presidential race.
Despite that, a relative new party, making its first bid for the parliament, succeeded in drawing attention. It was the Indonesian Solidarity Party (Partai Solidaritas Indonesia, PSI), founded in 2014 by Grace Natalie, a former journalist and TV news anchor who determinedly champions human rights, tolerance and equality. Her party, whose members are said to be mostly younger than 35, aims mainly at young urban people and as such has been often dubbed as the party of the youth (Partai Anak-Anak Muda) or the "millennials party" (Partai Millennial).
But what really turned heads to this party was the straightforward political style of its leader. Natalie, a Christian of Malay, Chinese, and Dutch descent, has not hesitated to touch sensitive issues in this Muslim majority country. Thus, prior to the elections she voiced strong opposition to local Sharia-inspired bylaws, which are considered by many democracy activists to contradict pluralism, freedoms, and the rights of women and religious minorities. She also called for an end to polygamy.
Consequently Natalie was accused of Islamophobia by political rivals. She was even reported by radical Muslims to the police for alleged blasphemy related to her statement against Sharia-inspired bylaws, and was questioned in this case.
This development instantly brought to mind the stormy events of late 2016 and early 2017 when zealous, hardline Islamist groups led massive protests, marked by religious and sectarian overtones, against the then highly popular governor of Jakarta, the ethnic Chinese Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as "Ahok," accusing him of insulting Islam in a reference he made in public to Quranic verse. In May 2017 Ahok was even sentenced by the court to two years in prison, based on the blasphemy law.
Nevertheless it could be argued then that the political cards, generally speaking, played in Natalie's favor; the accusations against her have not escalated too far; meanwhile, her party, which caused a big noise and drew political fire, was in the public eye and received relatively wide media coverage. A photo of Natalie shaking hands at the Presidential Palace with Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, who led in the pre-elections surveys over Prabowo (and indeed won the presidential race) got much publicity. So did the president's statement that the PSI is a party built by creative young people who are striving for greater accountability.
In addition, there was much ground to assume that the social-media savvy PSI, which ran under the slogan "Open, Progressive, That's Us!" (Terbuka, Progresif, Itu Kita), would be an attractive option for Indonesia's young people. Young voters had already indicated their being fed up with "old politics" through a low turnout in the elections of 2014. Similarly, the PSI was considered a relevant option for women and ethnic and religious minorities.
Hence, there was a room to wonder about the failure of the PSI to pass the parliamentary threshold of 4 percent of total votes, with the young party only winning about 1.9 percent. What makes the party's failure more puzzling and odd is the fact that in this elections turnout was higher compared to 2014, including among the PSI's targeted millennial voters (between the age of 17 to 35 years). These young voters constitute a large electorate element, assumed to be about 80 million voters.
Some explanations may be suggested for the PSI's poor achievements at the ballot box. First, PSI was in good company, since all four new parties failed to win seats in the parliament. In other words, voters overall seem to be more supportive of old, established parties than new ones. Second, it's possible the PSI went too far with its very demanding reformist agenda, considering the particular Indonesian context. Perhaps its strong challenge on some religious issues was perceived as too radical even among young moderate Muslims. Third, the growing identity politics of recent years may have played against the PSI, which is strongly identified with advancing the interests of minorities. Finally, gender norms may have played a role. The party is headed by a woman and almost half of their cadres are said to be women, an uncommon phenomenon in Indonesia politics, where voters, including young voters, seem to still prioritize men over female candidates. It appears that low female political participation and representation is caused much more by traditional conventions than by political procedures.
Notably, Natalie immediately accepted the political failure in a very impressive democratic spirit, declaring that her party respects the people's decision through the democratic mechanism. She promised that the PSI would continue to fight for its voters' interests by working with civil society organizations and the press. Actually, party candidates did win seats in Regional Representative Councils (DPRD, provincial, regency, and city representative councils). Eight of them, including Natalie, won seats in Jakarta Council. Moreover, the name of Grace Natalie is also being mentioned now among a few young women who may be appointed to a post in the new Cabinet. Jokowi already made it clear that he is open to the idea of appointing to his cabinet even young people in their 20s, as long as they have the proven understanding, management, and capability to implement programs. So, Natalie's promise immediately after the elections that "we shall return, soon!" might be realized in this way.
Meanwhile, the PSI leader keeps talking, including in neighboring Australia, about the need to avoid misuse of religion as a political tool and the importance of political accountability and transparency as well as of substantial participation by the people. As to the future, she looks optimistically toward Jokowi's second term as president, believing in his committed democratic leadership.
[Dr. Giora Eliraz is Affiliate Instructor at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle and Research Associate at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.]