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Analysis: Conservative Indonesian voters shun Islamism

Jakarta Post - June 3, 2024

Tenggara Strategics, Jakarta – While Indonesians have become more religiously conservative, most of them shunned Islamism in the February general election, as indicated by the failure of the United Development Party (PPP), the country's oldest Islamist political party, to win any seats in the national legislature for the first time in its 51-year history.

The death knell came when the Constitutional Court on May 22 dismissed the PPP's petition to review the results of the legislative election that saw the party polling only 3.87 percent of the national votes, short of the 4 percent minimum to get representation in the House of Representatives. In its petition, the PPP claimed massive electoral fraud in 19 provinces that reduced its share of the votes. The court's decision is final and binding.

The PPP, founded in 1973, has been on the frontline campaigning on Islamic themes, including the introduction of parts of the sharia law, either into the national law or in regional bylaws. Besides influencing policies through national legislation, the party has also had some influence in policy-making as a member of successive coalition governments. Its House seats gave it some bargaining power to secure one or two cabinet seats, including in the current administration of President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo.

Now, with no bargaining chips following the electoral defeat, the PPP will likely be left out of the administration of president-elect Prabowo Subianto who takes over in October. To make matters worse, the PPP supported Prabowo's rival, Gandjar Pranowo, in the presidential race. This has not stopped party leaders from knocking on Prabowo's doors to get a piece of the action. The president-elect, who is putting together his administration, has not responded.

The PPP, which uses the symbol of Ka'bah (the black stone structure in Mecca toward which all Muslim prayers are directed), is not the only Islamist party contesting the February elections, but the others have not done much better, indicating that the bulk of Muslim voters have less appetite for the religious themes offered in their campaigns. With the PPP out of the picture, the Justice Welfare Party (PKS) will be the sole Islamist party in the House. It polled 8.42 percent of the national votes, enough to ensure some representation in the House, although how many seats exactly will only be known in the announcement by the General Elections Commission (KPU) in June.

The Nation Awakening Party (PKB) never campaigned on Islamic themes, although it relies mostly on the support of members and families of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia's largest Islamic mass organization. The PKB polled 10.62 percent of the national votes, also helped in part by the decision of chairman Muhaimin Iskandar to contest the presidential race as running mate to candidate Anies Baswedan.

What's More

Three other Islamist parties that contested the election did not make the 4 percent threshold. Taken altogether, the Islamist parties polled around 15 percent of the national votes, a reflection of the extent of their popularity among voters. The bulk of Indonesian voters went for nationalist-secular parties that dominate Indonesia's political landscape.

With Islam embraced by 88 percent of its 280 million population, Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim-majority country. Successive free and fair elections however indicate that Indonesia is nowhere near becoming an Islamic state.

The 2024 general election was also far less polarized than the 2014 and 2019 elections when religion featured prominently in the campaigns. One lesson learned from these two previous elections is that while religion can win you some extra votes, you will not get very far and it may even be detrimental when you push it too far.

Prabowo of all people knows this. In both 2014 and 2019, Islamic conservative groups threw their support behind him in the closely contested presidential race, and both times he lost to Jokowi. In the 2024 race, he did not court their support and won.

His rival, Anies received their support instead, but he too refrained from playing the religion card in his campaign. This contrasts with 2017, when Anies relied on the support of Muslim conservatives to win the Jakarta gubernatorial election, beating the popular incumbent Basoeki Tjahaja "Ahok" Purnama, an Indonesian of Chinese descendant and a Christian. The stigma as a candidate to represent conservative Islam has remained and did not help Anies in February.

But while Muslim voters generally shun the politicization of Islam, Islamist parties have been on the frontline in introducing legislation that has made Indonesia more conservative. This includes the pornography law, the new criminal code, the national education law and the introduction of sharia in many byelaws in the regions.

The PPP will continue to have some influence in regions where it has won seats in the local councils, but even here its share of votes has been steadily declining. In the 1970s up to the 1990s, the PPP was the sole Islamist party when the Soeharto regime limited the number of political parties to only three. Its best electoral performance came in 1977 when it won 29 percent of the votes.

After Soeharto's downhall in 1998, the PPP has had to share the field with other new Islamist parties when the restriction on political parties was lifted. In 1999, it polled just over 10 percent of the votes, but it has been declining ever since until this year.

What we've heard

A politician who supports Prabowo said efforts had been made to save the PPP. For instance, according to this source, there was an attempt to add PPP votes from the Garuda Party, which supported Prabowo but failed to meet the parliamentary threshold. "Initially, the helping hand came from senior figures in Gerindra who have close ties with the Garuda Party," said the source.

To rejoin the House in 2029, the PPP plans to revamp its image. An internal source within the Islamic party said the PPP would focus on engaging young people and leveraging potential members in the regions to attract votes in the upcoming regional elections. The PPP managed to secure around 80 seats in provincial legislative councils and 800 seats in the legislative councils in cities and regencies across the country.

According to this source, interim chairman Mardiono has already gathered party officials to focus on winning regional elections. PPP has several cadres who are currently regional leaders. For example, Dony Ahmad Munir serves as the Sumedang regent and Uu Ruzhanul Ulum is the deputy governor of West Java.

The failure to pass the parliamentary threshold also puts Mardiono's job at risk. An internal source said Mardiono might be replaced due to the party's disappointing performance. A businessman who campaigned for Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MdD is reportedly being prepared to lead PPP.

[This content is provided by Tenggara Strategics in collaboration with The Jakarta Post to serve the latest comprehensive and reliable analysis on Indonesia's political and business landscape.]

Source: https://www.thejakartapost.com/opinion/2024/06/03/analysis-conservative-indonesian-voters-shun-islamism.htm