Indonesia is neither secular nor Islamist 2008-03-26 Over the past decade Indonesia's political system has evolved from being one of Southeast
Asia's most authoritarian to being its most democratic. This has been an extraordinary national
achievement of which all Indonesians should be justifiably proud and relieved.
One of the hallmarks of the old system was to refer to its stability. I think this was a most
inappropriate description. What we had then was merely tranquility. What's the difference?
Tranquility should be seen as akin to putting a big lid on a pot of water. Under the lid we have
no idea what is going on – is the water warm, bubbling or boiling? Nobody can know until the
whole thing suddenly explodes. Prior to the pot exploding all looks fine and tranquil, but
certainly not stable.
Now that the lid has been removed in Indonesia, we can see where the hot spots are. We can
also see that there are peaceful avenues for letting off steam. On balance the nation now has a
strong measure of genuine stability rather than merely tranquility. Indeed, the country now
enjoys political stability of a kind not seen in half a century. One key reason relates to the
emergence of a substantial middle ground in Indonesian politics.
Unlike most countries in the West where the political divide between left and right is largely
over the role of the state in the economy and socio-economic policies (left want more, right want
less), in Indonesian the split is over the role of Islam in the state. This is pictured as a divide
between those on the left who demand no role for Islam or any religion in the state sphere (the
secularists) and those on the right who demand that Islam occupy a front and central role in the
state (the Islamists).
In addition, Indonesia has a second divide (up and down) which might crudely be called a split
between the elitists and populists. This divide is not about ideology but more about political
culture although it may eventually morph into a kind of income or class divide. This shows itself
in the way respective leaders and their parties communicate with their public. The elitists tend to
adopt a more "technocratic" demeanor while the populists tend to adopt a more "folksy" one.
Electoral contests in Indonesia have traditionally revolved around both these divides. The only
exceptions were the "transitional" elections of 1971 and 1999. 1971 involved a transition
towards non-competitive elections conducted to re-affirm the constitutional status quo, while
1999 was a transition back to competitive elections conducted to elect or dismiss leaders.
Picturing the political divide
The first national elections were held in 1955. The two dimensional picture of the results can be
seen below. The percentage of the vote each party received is reflected in the size of its circle
and excludes all parties securing less than three percent of votes:
26 March 2008
The most notable feature to emerge from this picture is the absence of any middle ground
between the left and right. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the country was then
unable to resolve the issue of the role of Islam within the state. This incapacity to come to an
effective accommodation or acceptable consensus provided the basis for much ideological
instability in the first decades of the country's history.
Looking ahead almost 50 years to 2004 shows a very different picture.
There are two key features to this picture. The first is that the number of serious parties has risen
from 4 to 7. The second is that the middle ground is now filled with competing parties. This
"battle for the middle" is a feature common to any stable polity. When the forces of polarization
are dominant, as we saw in 1955, the potential for significant instability is manifest.
26 March 2008
Does this mean the forces opposed to Islamic politics have increased? Yes that is clear.
However it is equally clear that there has also been a decline in the number of those who oppose
any role or respect for religious thinking to "invade" the public domain. Indeed both secularists
and Islamists have lost support over this time. The emergent dominant position of this middle
ground reflects a position which I characterize as a "State of Godliness". In terms of a Western
comparison, it may be akin to comparing an aggressively secular Western Europe with
contemporary USA, where religious piety is a critical credential for electoral success and
religious "dogma" is a key electoral dividing line with abortion and stem-cell research typical hot
Historically in Indonesia the political fault line has been fought over something known as the
Jakarta Charter and other attempts to insert an overtly Islamic character in the constitutional
structure of the country. In earlier decades the absence of a political middle ground prevented
the emergence of a consensus on managing the issue leading to stalemate and conflict. When the
same issue arose in the constitutional reform debates around 2000, the issue was quickly dealt
with and compromise reached, with the middle ground parties being able to fashion an
acceptable understanding. More recently we would recall that the most controversial and
passionately debated law of the past five years has been about a proposed law to oppose
pornography and porno-actions. The Islamic parties have been active proponents of this law,
while PDIP has been most aggressively opposed to it. Again the parties in the middle have
tended to take the view that may be crudely summarized as "we also oppose pornography but
porno-action opens the path for all manner of abuse of state authority". This debate is still
ongoing, but clearly contained with the realm of democratic politics.
Not surprisingly those at the edge of the spectrum nowadays seek to present a more "moderate"
face in order to secure their electoral futures. From the right we see both PKS and PPP engaged
in rather public debates about not being "exclusivist", while from the left PDIP has recently
established a small Islamic support group to burnish its credentials as not being anti-Islamic.
A third set of divisions in Indonesian partisan politics can be seen in terms of geography,
specifically between urban and rural voters and between people on Java and those off Java. The
next chart indicates the geographic concentration of support for the major parties in 1955.
26 March 2008
Once again we see a considerable empty space along the Java and off-Java axis, with three of the
four big parties demonstrating a strong concentration of support on Java while Masjumi's
support was concentrated off Java. In general, support for secular-nationalist leaning parties off
Java was quite modest. Indeed the Protestant party, Parkindo, enjoyed considerably more
support off Java than the Communist Party (PKI) while the Catholic Party gained almost as
many votes as the PKI. The absence of parties with substantive cross regional support bases was
especially devastating considering there was no specific regions' house in the Legislature. This
meant that the demographic dominance of Java was reflected in politics and the national policy
agenda, leaving the citizens off Java effectively impotent to affect national policy through
constitutional and democratic means.
It is little wonder that, especially considering the strong leftward drift of Java towards the
Communist Party seen in the regional elections of 1957, many of the off Java regions ended up
in a physical conflict with Jakarta by the end of the 1950s.
The situation by 1999 had changed as seen below:
26 March 2008
The emergence of parties with regionally balanced bases of support was again seen in 2004,
especially with the key off Java party of 1999, Golkar, regaining some support on Java in 2004
while also losing significant support off Java especially in Eastern Indonesia. Significantly, its
support on Java was concentrated mostly in the regions of West Java and Banten, not across the
Javanese heartlands of Central and East Java.
The emergence of significant parties with reasonable cross-regional support bases is another
healthy trend in terms of consolidating stability. An effective and substantial regions' house,
rather than the impotent advisory chamber which is what currently exists for the newly
constituted regions' house (DPD) would surely assist further cement and institutionalize this
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Straits Times of Singapore at the end of