In his book Islam in Indonesia in the Twenty-First Century (2008), Fred R. Von der Mehden argues that Indonesia has a Muslim majority and is democratic, although time is needed before this democracy stabilizes.
However, it is more than enough to confirm that Islam and democracy are compatible.
Quick count estimates on the 2009 elections indicate that Islamist political parties (those parties promoting an Islamic ideology, and nationalist Islamic parties whose support comes largely from the Muslim community) experienced a significant decrease in the votes they were able to secure at a legislative level.
In the 1999 election, Islamist parties – comprising the United Development Party (PPP) 10.71 percent, the Crescent Star Party (PBB) 1.94 percent, and the Justice Party (PK) 1.36 percent – obtained a total of around 14 percent of the vote. And combined with the Nationalist Islamic parties – the National Awakening Party (PKB) 12.61 percent and National Mandate Party (PAN) 7.12 percent – these Islamic parties secured 35 percent of the vote.
In the 2004 election, Islamist parties – comprising PKS (PK had to change its name to PKS because it failed to get the minimum threshold in the 1999 elections) 7.34 percent and PPP 8.15 percent – won a total of 16 percent of the vote. The nationalist Islamic parties, PKB and PAN, won 10.57 percent and 6.44 percent, respectively. All together, they secured 33 percent.
According to quick count estimates on the 2009 election, PPP and PKS have secured 5.45 percent and 8.46 percent, respectively (a total of 14 percent). Meanwhile, nationalist Islamic parties PKB and PAN are estimated to have won 5.12 percent and 6.36 percent. In total, they have only won 25.5 percent.
Thus the overall percentage of votes secured by Islamist parties and nationalist Islamic parties has decreased, even more so when compared to the 1955 election in which they obtained about 44 percent.
PKS has indeed gained a slightly larger percentage of votes compared to the 2004 election, but this can be seen as a cannibalization of votes from other Islamic parties, and not from nationalist parties. PKS is currently offering a pluralist orientation to voters, although this still features Islam as an ideology.
Taking into account the 2.5 percent parliament threshold, there are now five nationalist parties, three of whom won significant votes, namely the Democratic Party (PD) 20.33 percent, the Golkar Party 14.43 percent, and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) 14.31 percent.
The People’s Conscience Party (Hanura) 4.42 percent, and the Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra) 3.5 percent are two newcomers.
In this sense, the reality in Indonesia confirms Mehden’s argument. Nationalist Islamic parties and those promoting an Islamic ideology are slowly sliding into obscurity, even though parties based on religious idealism are not always incompatible with democracy.
Parties maintaining an Islamic ideology can continue to exist as idealist parties advocating universal religious values and may evolve into universal parties, as was the case with the Democratic Christian Party that is currently in power in Germany.
In so far as it concerns the party system, exclusive Islamic ideologies are no longer able to meet the needs of those concerned about the existence of such Islamic parties or of those who still place hopes in the promise that ideological realization can change Indonesian state foundations.
However, in terms of their main actors and constituents, all parties in parliament are based on Islam, differing only in orientation and program priorities. Democracy, it seems, has given Indonesians the power to determine the orientation and future of Indonesia.
This is not to say all is well. Poverty, a lack of education, the potential for conflicts, and tendencies of intolerance and tyranny of certain understandings over others are still significant issues. Mehden proposes at least three agendas for Indonesia in the future.
The first is to maintain pluralism. In the past, the Indonesian reality and descriptions of Islam in Indonesia showed Indonesia as a flexible and tolerant nation.
However, recently conflicts have broken out in several places including Ambon, Poso and West Kalimantan, and there is tension and more minor outbreaks of violence elsewhere, and also Sharia bylaws which are constraint to democracy. Resolving conflicts and tension must be a priority.
Resolution must not be achieved purely through political authoritarianism, but through the construction of a political and social system based on original Indonesian culture.
Second, is to maintain democracy itself. There are three points to this.
First, Islamic-based parties are required to emerge and create a dynamic non-monolithic Islamic society in order to provide opportunities for various elements within the Muslim community.
Second, a multi-party system gives an opportunity to groups who feel marginalized to advocate their aspirations openly.
Third, accountability of political parties can guarantee the continuation of democracy and can reinforce society’s belief in politics as a channel for advocating their interests and aspirations.
Radical Islam or Islamic groups who continue to promote violence and who coerce others must be processed legally. Their historical relationship with military actors and political interest groups in support of the status quo must be dealt with firmly but proportionally.
The election results in Indonesia prove that Islam is not just compatible with democracy, but that democracy can be as prosperous here as it is in other countries.
The writer is executive director of the Wahid Institute, Jakarta.