Religion takes a back seat in Southeast Asia

Posted in Broader Middle East | 27-Mar-04 | Author: Philip Bowring| Source: International Herald Tribune

Malaysia and Indonesia

JAKARTA The current election season is revealing interesting features of the role, or lack of it, of religion in the democratic politics of the predominantly Muslim countries of Southeast Asia.

The rout in Malaysia last Sunday of the Parti Islam, or PAS, has been widely taken as a rejection of fundamentalists pushing for a closer linkage between the state and religious practices. That is only partly true.

The result reflects a post-Sept. 11, post-Bali unease with fundamentalism, even though in Malaysia there have never been convincing links between PAS and terrorism. There is a sense that PAS policies are not in keeping with Malay traditions of tolerance.

More important in the swing against PAS, however, was not religion but a pick-up in the rural economy and, above all, the retirement of Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad. He was widely disliked by Malays, primarily for his treatment of his imprisoned former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, and for his association with money politics. This election was thus a reversion to the status quo ante rather than a knock-out blow to PAS.

PAS is not just a reflection of fundamentalism. The battle for Malaysian votes is as much about championing Malay racial identity as about the role of religion in society. The party, founded in 1951, was in power in its stronghold, Kelantan State, long before more radical Islam spread to the region after the Iranian revolution. It retains a conservative traditionalist base with a topping of more radical views.

The arithmetic of Malaysian politics, once Chinese and Indians are counted, ensures that PAS will forever remain a minority party except in Kelantan and at best two other states.

That said, the role of Islam in the politics of Malaysia, whose population is 60 percent Muslim, is much greater than in Indonesia, where 90 percent of the population is Muslim. Indonesia is in the early days of a six-month contest. Legislative elections on April 5 will help determine the lineup for the first round of the presidential election in July and a September runoff between the top two candidates.

The most striking aspect of the Indonesian contest is that religion - or indeed ideology of any sort - is largely absent. This is a battle of personalities and interest groups, which offers a bewildering number of possible alliances. Religious organizations matter only to the extent that they can, if they choose, help to deliver votes.

The main interest in the legislative election centers around the battle between the two largest parties, the nationalist, supposedly reformist PDI-P of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, and Golkar, mainly representing conservative and Suharto-era interests. The five main Muslim parties are likely to see their combined share of the vote fall to about 35 percent.

Golkar has money, a reputation for competent government and a slew of presidential aspirants. None is outstandingly electable, but a strong Golkar showing in April could, with the right allies, be a threat to Megawati. If Golkar does less well than PDI-P in April it may ally with Megawati, settling for the vice-presidency and a hefty share of cabinet posts. Megawati, meanwhile, is courting some Muslim parties.

In origin all the Muslim parties are political reflections of varying interpretations of Islam, from the very relaxed to the moderately austere. But personalities and power, rather than religious issues, dominate their political discourse. Commitments to a larger role for Islam are vague.

The one serious identifiably Muslim candidate for the presidency, Amien Rais, has had to play down Islam and play up reformist credentials in order to broaden his appeal. Meanwhile personal and historic rivalries make it difficult for him to form a coalition of Muslim parties.

Rais may be less of a danger to Megawati than Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who recently quit as coordinating minister for political and security affairs. Though many view him as indecisive, he has enough credibility as honest and competent to carve out much middle ground; Megawati's vulnerability is not her secular nationalism but her competence.

It is no longer possible to divide parties into pro- or anti-reform. Discussion is about future alliances for the presidential campaign that cross old divides. Megawati is at heart as conservative as she is secular and nationalist. Reformers, crony capitalists, religionists, technocrats and military men cross party lines.

The presidential lineup will be a matter of intense horse-trading after April 5. This will continue until the runoff. The only certainties are that Megawati is running and that the main Muslim parties are more interested in a share of power than in issues of faith or morals. The same political pack will be reshuffled. That is good for stability and bad for progress but is the nature of democracy in a country that holds together by not wearing Islam on its sleeve.

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