Loosely-united Islamic parties pose weak threat

No party is willing to rally around a single political figure.

Islamic parties in Indonesia are facing a crisis of leadership.

Torn apart by personal ambition and ideological differences, they have not been able to unite behind a single presidential ticket to challenge President Megawati Sukarnoputri and the secular nationalist bloc in this year’s elections.

Thus far, none of the five major Muslim parties – the United Development Party (PPP), the Nation Awakening Party (PKB), the National Mandate Party (PAN), the Crescent Star Party (PBB) and the Justice Party (PK) – are willing to rally around a single political figure.

None of the leading Muslim contenders such as Vice-President Hamzah Haz, National Assembly chairman Amien Rais and former president Abdurrahman Wahid, has suggested that they could work together.

Mr Hamzah, who is the PPP chairman, has indicated that he would be more inclined to be Ms Megawati’s No 2 than work in the shadows of National Assembly (MPR) chairman Amien Rais.

Dr Amien, who leads PAN and is at the forefront of cobbling together a Muslim coalition ahead of presidential polls, has his own grand design. He wants the presidency for himself – just like former Indonesian leader Abdurrahman Wahid who is being backed by the PKB.

Political analyst Meidyatama Suryodiningrat of the Jakarta-based Van Zorge consultancy believes that parties such as the PPP, the PKB and PAN, which are led by powerful, high-profile individuals, are trapped in an irony.

‘They have strong party chiefs who can attract a large number of voters. But it is the very stature of these individuals that diminishes the likelihood of other high-profile candidates running on the same ticket.’

He said smaller Islamic parties such as the PBB and PK, who are led by politicians with limited popular appeal, are looking outside the Muslim bloc for national-level leaders like security czar Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

There is little chance of them supporting a presidential candidate from one of the big three Islamic parties.

Underlying the rivalry are deep historical ideological differences between two of the largest Muslim groups in Indonesia – the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) and the Muhammadiyah.

Consequently, the two have not been able to present a united Islamic platform on issues such as the Syariah, or the Islamic state.

Most parties gravitate either to the NU or the Muhammadiyah in search of support, but with the two Muslim groups differing on ideology, it becomes even more difficult to forge a common stand on issues in the country.

Even if these parties were to unite in the parliamentary and presidential elections this year, Indonesian mainstream voters – the bulk of whom are secular – are unlikely to veer towards them.

Against a backdrop of terrorist attacks in the country, support for these parties could weaken further amid concerns that backing Islamic politicians could pave the way for hardliners to come to power.

They are unlikely to capture voters from the mainstream supporters, for they will vote for the PDI-P and Golkar.

Observers believe that any gains made by one of the five Islamic parties will come at the expense of the other.

Bereft of clear leadership and mass support, Islamic parties – on their own or as a coalition – are unlikely to produce a winning presidential ticket.

They will, instead, play the role of coalition partners.

But it would be interesting to find out how many votes they will be able to mobilise.

If they are able to muster 10 to 15 million votes, the Muslim parties could use it to extract concessions from Ms Megawati, before agreeing to join hands.

The dagger they are pointing at her might not be as sharp as it was in 1999 when they blocked her bid for the presidency.

But it is still sharp enough to make sure that the interests of the Islamic camp remain on the cards of any future government.

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