A wave of change across South-East Asia? But counter-currents too

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The
latest results from the governorial elections in the provinces of
West Java and North Sumatra, Indonesia, would suggest that a
sea-change of sorts is taking place in Indonesia. Shortly after the
shock election results following the general election in Malaysia
earlier this year, the governorial elections of Indonesia has led to
the victory of the Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) and the
National Mandate Party (Pan), both of which are Islamist in character
and both of which trace their ideological and intellectual genealogy
back to the Islamist Masjumi party of the 1950s that struggled to
make Indonesia an Islamic state until it was finally banned by
President Sukarno in 1960. Farish Noor analyses the implications. 


What
do these results entail and what does it say about the state of
Indonesian politics today? More importantly, should the victories of
PKS and Pan be seen as the victory of political Islam, and does this
signify a shift towards a more Islamist-inclined politics for the
rest of the country?

For
a start, we should begin with some important observations comparing
the results in Indonesia with the recent results in Malaysia. In both
cases, the parties that won fielded candidates who are young and
relatively unknown compared to the older veterans of the more
established parties like Golkar in Indonesia. Yet, as was the case in
Malaysia recently, it was precisely the relatively younger age and
lack of exposure that perhaps accounted for the victory of the
candidates of the PKS and Pan, for they were certainly not associated
with the older modes of politics in the past and were not involved or
implicated in many of the long-standing political and economic
scandals associated with the old regime that dates back to the time
of former President Suharto.

Secondly,
it should be noted that the Indonesian parties, like the opposition
parties that did extremely well in Malaysia, campaigned on a
reformist ticket calling for change and a new vision of politics for
Indonesia. While speaking to Indonesian students at the Muhamadiyyah
University of Surakarta and Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University of
Jogjakarta, I was struck by the overwhelming consensus among all of
them that Indonesia is thirsting for a new form of politics that
breaks away from the norms of the old feudal past. Like Malaysia,
Indonesia today has an entirely new generation of younger voters,
many of whom will be voting for the first time during the general
election of 2009. Already, many local analysts are predicting a major
shift in voting patterns and are awaiting results that may shock all
the older established parties.

Change,
however, is always a contested process and needless to say it will
take much more than an election to deal with the chronic problems of
corruption, nepotism and lack of transparency and accountability in
Indonesian politics. While the more modernist Islamist parties like
PKS and Pan have totally abandoned the sectarian and divisive
discourse of holy war, sharia and the calls for the imposition of an
Islamic state and Islamic constitution in Indonesia; a
counter-reaction is also brewing among the more conservative
movements in the country.

While
the members of the PKS and Pan celebrate their fresh victories, on
the very same day the Indonesian government’s religious authorities
have formally declared that the minority Ahmadi community – a sect
that originated from South Asia but has spread all over the Muslim
world – are deviants and that the sect should be banned ‘for their
own good’. The reason behind this somewhat bizarre pronouncement is
that many extreme right wing Islamist groups in Indonesia like the
Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI), Islamic Defenders Front (FPI)
and others have openly declared total war against the Ahmadi
communities.

Thus,
ironically, on the same day that Muslim moderates of PKS and Pan
celebrated their victories in West Java and North Sumatra, the
leaders of the Islamic Defenders Front have openly called for FPI
members to go out and kill the members of the Ahmadi community all
over the country. In a recorded public rally the FPI leader went as
far as crying out: “Kill them all! Kill all Ahmadis! Wipe them out
of Indonesia! Kill, kill, kill!”

Indonesian
politics is likely to remain on the boil well into next year when the
General Elections will pit the new Islamist parties like PKS and Pan
against the old guard led by Golkar and even parties like the Partai
Demokrat of current President Bambang Yudhoyono. While tempering
their public discourse, some PKS and Pan leaders have already stated
that they will not compromise on issues of public morals such as
imposing a ban on consumption of alcohol for Muslims, stricter dress
codes and personal morality laws for Muslims, bans on rock concerts
and in particular the very popular form of local pop music known as
Dangdut.

With
the Islamists – both moderate and conservative – setting the terms
for the debate on Islam and politics in Indonesia, it is clear that
religion will remain one of the central issues of Indonesian politics
for a long time to come. But what sort of religious politics? Will it
be the modernist vision of the Islamists of PKS and Pan (which is
already conservative enough on social and moral issues), or will it
be the exclusive and sectarian vision of Islam currently pushed by
the likes of the Indonesian Mujahideen Council? Only time will tell,
but for now Indonesia remains a focal point in the battle for hearts
and minds of two hundred million Muslims.

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