Sunday, May 01, 2005

Religion doesn't figure in Indonesian polls

The Straits Times
Saturday, April 3, 2004


JAKARTA - Come Monday, Indonesia will hold its general elections, which will be followed by a presidential election set to take place in July.

Unlike the recent elections in neighbouring Malaysia, which were filled with piety politics, religion does not dominate election campaigns in Indonesia, home to the world's largest Muslim population.

Lately, there has been a growing concern about the so-called 'green wave', the rising Islamisation of politics in the Muslim world, for fear of societies being turned into theocracies if an Islamic party wins and terrorist acts are carried out by radical Muslims.

As the results of the March 21 elections in Malaysia illustrated, the 'greenisation' of elections has its weaknesses.

The hardline Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) campaigned with the line that Malaysian voters 'will go to heaven for choosing an Islamic party, while those who support un-Islamic parties will logically go to hell'.

The end result was PAS lost, and Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's National Front, a multi-ethnic party with a progressive, economics-oriented platform, won big.

Similarly, religion is the last thing on Indonesians' minds as they go to the polls.

An early-March survey conducted across the country by the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) confirms this trend. Survey participants were asked what mattered most to them as criteria in the elections: employment, political stability, transparency, education and religion, among other things. While other criteria scored as high as 40 percent, religion scored a tiny 4 percent.

The same survey also showed the most popular parties are not Islamic ones. Of the 24 contesting parties, the leading three are Golkar (short for Golongan Karya, or Functional Group); the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), led by President Megawati Sukarnoputri; and the National Mandate Party (PAN), led by Speaker of Parliament Amien Rais.

A party is considered Islamic only when its platform is Islam-based. Thus, even though PAN has many supporters from Muhammadiyah, one of Indonesia's largest Islamic organisations, it does not qualify as an Islamic party. The same applies to the National Awakening Party, which is led by former president Abdurrahman Wahid and has strong support from Nahdlatul Ulama, another Islamic powerhouse.

The message from this survey is clear: Indonesians want a democratic society with a strong economy, political stability, clean government and leadership. These are the deliverables Indonesian voters want to see from the elections, in both the parliamentary and presidential rounds.

That is their definition of democracy. Without these deliverables, democracy has hardly any meaning to the people of Indonesia - or their counterparts in other parts of the world, for that matter.

Even the Islamic parties are not campaigning on a religious, Islamic platform, as PAS did in Malaysia. Even though Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, Islam is not its official religion. In its early years, some lawmakers tried to persuade founding father Sukarno to institutionalise Islam and so make Indonesia an Islamic state. Understanding the complexity of Indonesia as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious archipelago, Sukarno offered a compromise whereby one the five principles of the state ideology is a 'belief in one god'. Knowing the majority of its population are Muslims, Sukarno's wisdom or cleverness lies in the fact that this 'one God' can be Allah, Buddha or Christ, depending on one's faith.

Islam is still the core religion in Indonesia. In 2002, many years after Indonesia's founding, a motion to institute Islamic law was put before the People's Consultative Assembly, but it was rejected.

As for the people of Indonesia, most do not desire a theocracy. As the IFES survey showed, they are rational enough to realise what matters most is that their basic needs - such as food, shelter, water and clothing - are met, and religion is not one of them.

If anything, to paraphrase Karl Marx, religion is the opium of the people: They can smoke it, but they can't eat it.

The writer, a Jakarta-based political analyst, has published several books, including Indonesia Matters: Diversity, Unity and Stability in Fragile Times.


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