Election officials disposing of leftover ballots in Bandar Lampung. (Antara Photo/Ardiansyah)

How Different Are Political Parties in Indonesia From One Another?

BY : CHRISTIAN LEE & CARLOS K.Y. PAATH

MAY 31, 2019

Jakarta. Political observer Saiful Mujani says polarization caused by this year's elections may run deep in society but has failed to shake up Indonesia's political establishment.

The founder of polling agency Saiful Mujani Research Center (SRMC) noted that the elections have not changed the balance of power between Indonesia's political parties, but instead have reinforced it. 

So-called nationalist parties such as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Prabowo Subianto's political machine the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), Golkar Party, National Democratic Party (NasDem) and the Democratic Party are still the dominant forces in Indonesian politics.

"Is Gerindra no longer nationalist? I still feel it is. At least formally it is no different to other nationalist parties. Even the NU-based PKB [National Awakening Party] is like the other nationalist parties," Saiful said, referring to the country's largest Islamic organization Nahdlatul Ulama, which founded the PKB.

According to him, the boundaries between nationalist and Islamic parties in Indonesia are blurred.

Nationalist parties are usually considered pluralist and inclusive toward minorities.

Saiful said the National Mandate Party (PAN), which backed losing presidential ticket Prabowo Subianto and Sandiaga Uno in the election, can be included in this category.

However, the rhetoric coming from the party's elites, such as its founder Amien Rais, has contributed to the divisive nature of last month's simultaneous presidential and legislative elections. 

"This can be seen clearly in Amien Rais's rhetoric. But PAN did not benefit from that in the [legislative] election," Saiful said.

The increasing polarization in Indonesian politics also did not help the United Development Party (PPP), which, unlike PAN, is traditionally rooted in Islamic politics.

"The PPP's numbers fell sharply [compared with the previous election]. They were close to being booted off from Senayan [where the House of Representatives building is located]. The polarization did not help [non-nationalist] PPP either," Saiful said.

Political expert Eve Warburton takes a different view of the polarization. She suggested that it is superficial and largely engineered by the top brass of the country's political elites as they fight for access to patronage resources.

'Nationalist' vs. 'Islamist?'

Saiful Mujani said the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) might be the most "exclusive" of all the parties in this year's elections. 

Even though the Islamist party's vote share increased by 1.4 percent from the 2014 legislative election, they were still unable to challenge the dominance of the nationalist parties. 

Saiful said PKS' marginally better performance this year was mainly the result of the decline in votes for the PPP.

In other words, there was no major shift in the power balance nationally.

"The nationalist or pluralist forces are still dominant. The polarization was meaningless [in terms of real politics], it only led to people getting hurt and damage to properties. It scared investors away. The economy suffered because of it. But there has been no real change in our political map, at least not officially," Saiful said.

Saiful pointed out that although nationalist parties have dominated the post-Reformasi era, they have historically been opportunistic.

"They never hesitate in introducing Islamic political agendas, such as discriminatory sharia laws, because of pressure from the Islamists and fear of losing voters," Saiful said.

A study by political analyst Michael Buehler found that supposedly secular PDI-P and Golkar – two ruling parties who claim themselves to be nationalist and pluralist – have drafted, passed and implemented the most shariah-based bylaws in every province except Aceh.

"State elites in Indonesia are opportunist Islamizers whose affection for Islamic law is less emotional than transactional and is therefore easily replaced should more efficient strategies to accumulate and exercise power present themselves in the future," Buehler wrote in his book, "The Politics of Shari'a Law: Islamist Activists and the State in Democratizing Indonesia."

'Cartelization' of Parties

Political scientists Dan Slater and Kuskridho Ambardi have argued that Indonesian politics are dominated by a "cartel" of parties who are no different from each other ideologically or in program. 

During an election, political parties compete and their elites might seem at odds with each other. But soon after, they form a pragmatic coalition to share the material rewards and benefits they reap while in office, which leads to endemic corruption, clientelism and money politics.

It is unclear where Indonesian parties and their elites stand on ideologically and this has sustained the political cartel while taking away the power from voters to punish parties if they feel dissatisfied.

In their book "The Changing Face of Corruption in the Asia Pacific," scholars Chris Rowley and Maria dela Rama wrote that "apart from donations from big businesses, parties depend on public resources, particularly through their access to strategic positions within government institutions."

"Positions within cabinet are an important gateway for political parties to access public resources, which constitute their main financial revenue," they said.

Vedi Hadiz meanwhile argued that the decentralized nature of the post-New Order era has given rise to more oligarchs at the local level who compete over power and resources by hijacking public institutions.

"It is in the context of such contests that appeals to conservative ideals of morality – whether Islamic or nationalist – may become a more entrenched rather than just fleeting feature of Indonesian democracy. This is because such appeals have the potential to connect otherwise detached oligarchic elites to broader bases of social support, by at least temporarily obscuring actual divisions within Indonesian society through moral appeals, but without being linked to any kind of agenda of transformation of the way in which power is constituted," he wrote.

The New Order-nurtured oligarchy reinvented itself after the reform era by controlling democratic institutions – parties, parliaments and elections. Furthermore, decades of military dictator Suharto's iron-fisted rule has led to a systematically disorganized civil society. 

Today, alternative social forces are almost nowhere to be seen following Suharto's fall. Those on the left had long been banned and wiped out since the 1965-1966 mass killings.

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