Indonesia: Consolidating Indonesian Democracy - The Case of the PKS

2005

David Reeve

It is one year since the start of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY)'s presidency, and over seven years since the fall of the Suharto administration. How far has democracy been consolidated? One classic condition is that two free elections must pass with peaceful transfers of power. Indonesian democracy now passes that test.

Another test is the development of democratic institutions and public faith in them. Indonesia certainly now has a free press, considerable freedom to organise, a powerful parliament, a directly elected president and a multiparty system. But public faith in the parties and parliament seems to be ebbing, with parties seen as corrupt; and self-serving elites seen as sapping the role of parliament rather than strengthening it. This points more to a 'stalled' democratic transition.

There is one rather different sort of party, the Islamic reformist Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS), which has focused on fighting corruption in government. Still small, the party's vote leapt from 1.4 per cent in 1999, to 7.3 per cent in 2004, and topped the polls in Jakarta, Medan, Padang, Bandung and Banda Aceh. Its main bases are urban, drawing support and organisational structure from the tarbiyah Islamic education movement on campuses. The tarbiyah 'Islamic consciousness raising' movement emphasises political action inspired by Islamic piety. The PKS has a reputation for being clean, young, committed and active.

Since 2004 the PKS has faced the new problem of having to play an active role in government. It belongs to the parliamentary coalition supporting SBY and has three members in the cabinet. It plays a major role in the governments of the cities just mentioned. However, playing practical politics is a very different deal from crusading from the outside. As a consequence, the PKS risks being caught up in anti-government and anti-party sentiment.

One example of the challenges faced is the recent hugely unpopular cut to fuel subsidies. The PKS tried to offer an alternative solution to the government's policy but finally had to fall in line. In the local Jakarta parliament, the PKS lost face by agreeing to increase parliamentarians' salaries, but tried to preserve a moral advantage by diverting the increase to the party's social service programs. Thus, the reformist ideals of the PKS have hit a rough patch in the harsh realities of coalition politics in Indonesia.

The PKS is deeply divided over whether to stay in government. This caused heated debate at the party's annual Advisory Council meeting on 26-27 November. The Jakarta and Yogyakarta branches pressed strongly for withdrawal. The PKS's urban support base is increasingly alarmed by the compromises associated with being in government. The majority in the party still believe that they can only fight corruption from within government, describing this role last week as 'a partner, but still a critical force'.

WATCHPOINT: The PKS has angled for the attorney-general position in cabinet, to crack down on corruption. How will the PKS fare in the promised cabinet reshuffle?

 

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