A chance for Islamic parties

Some political observers conclude, based on the results of the 2009 legislative elections, that Islamic political parties have entered their “sunset” era and that voters have rejected the idea of promoting Islamic values through politics, in favor of nationalist- secular parties instead.

But since the Democratic Party (PD), which gained the most seats in the election, is built less on any ideology and more on the popularity of incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who, if he wins the July 8 election, cannot run again in the 2014 presidential election, Islamic parties will have a chance to reclaim lost ground in 2014 – but only if they can produce capable candidates and convey a coherent message.

Data from the April election shows that the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) got just 50,000 more votes than it did in 2004, while other Islamic and Muslim-based parties, including the United Development Party (PPP) and the National Awakening Party (PKB), actually lost votes.

But they were not the only ones who did poorly; the votes of nationalist- secular parties such as the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and the Golkar Party also declined sharply.

The performance of the PD, which received more than 20 percent of the popular vote, or about 300 percent more than it did five years ago, of course has to be attributed more to the SBY factor than the party’s ideology.

If SBY, in his coalition with Islamic parties, wins the upcoming presidential election, as has been forecast by several surveys, 2009-2014 will be his last term. So if the PD is indeed synonymous with SBY, 2009 could be its last victory.

At the same time, the PDI-P and the Golkar Party have not shown any ability to effectively challenge government policy or formulate alternative positions in a way that can gain a significant increase in voter support.

Under such conditions, in the 2014 election, there will be enough room for Islamic parties not just to survive but even to grow.

But for this to happen, Islamic parties must do three related things in the next five years: First, define a clear policy that is significantly different from other parties; secondly, develop a stock of loyal and high quality cadres; and thirdly, ensure the availability of widely accepted figures that can act as “ambassadors, ” or icons of the parties.

Let’s take a closer look at these essential requirements.

Islamic parties could clearly differentiate themselves from other parties with consistent adherence to their ideology on a day-to-day basis. This does not mean that they have to rely excessively on Islamic symbols in order to demonstrate their identity to the public.

Rather, they have to offer substantive programs by extracting some very basic, universal and eternal divine values that can inspire strategies to meet empirical economic, social, and political challenges, including the improvement of social welfare.

Party cadres need to use their presence in the Cabinet and legislatures at both the national and local levels to design concrete policies that can solve social problems including unemployment, flooding, the poor condition of health care and so on.

In the context of their coalition with SBY and the PD, Islamic parties have to base their bargaining position on very high standards of political ethics and behavior, rather than resorting to threats or arrogance in the media to push their coalition partner to accept their proposals.

They have to resist the temptation to be greedy. Islamic parties in the coalition have to present a solid front and prevent the emergence of internal factions resulting from ideological differences.

Top quality cadres need to be produced from a thorough in-depth training process based on the party’s basic values. The selection of party candidates must be based on merit and conducted through a a well-designed, measurable and transparent system applied consistently throughout the whole organization.

If the party selects candidates based on favoritism and their ability to pay they will be indistinguishable from any other party. All candidates must know what the prerequisites for the positions are beforehand and be given an equal chance to compete. The party needs to apply a mechanism of rewards and punishments that gives cadres an incentive to behave according to its values.

It is not enough for Islamic parties to ask SBY to allocate as many positions as possible for their cadres in his next cabinet. They should be able to guarantee those who fill the positions will be competent and credible. If they don’t develop professional, technically- skilled members, the Islamic parties are going to continue to fall behind.

This brings us back to 2014. The inability of SBY to run for a third term and the personalized nature of his party gives Islamic parties a chance to recover. But unless they can show themselves to be better, cleaner and more professional than other parties, they will surely fall further behind.

The writer is a Post-Graduate Student at the University of Indonesia’s Department of Sociology.

Arief Munandar

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