Asia Letter: Indonesian Islamist party is quietly gaining ground

Posted in Broader Middle East | 08-Apr-04 | Author: Jane Perlez| Source: International Herald Tribune

JAKARTA Clean. Healthy. Caring.

That was the slogan of the highly tuned Justice and Prosperity Party, a religious Islamic party led by well-educated men and women that performed surprisingly well in Indonesia's parliamentary elections on Monday. Unlike the mainstream secular parties that depended on politicians as personalities, and ignored the issues of a feeble economy and rampant corruption, the Justice Party listened. It played down its religious tenets, and played up popular concerns. It spurned big rallies - although the one rally it did hold attracted a crowd estimated at 100,000 - and concentrated on talking to small groups of voters.

The strategy paid off. The jump from 1.4 percent of the vote five years ago to perhaps as much as 10 percent by the time counting is completed is a significant gain.

This is particularly so when the two large secular parties here - one led by the erratic President Megawati Sukarnoputri and the other by a former Suharto official, Akbar Tandjung - appear to have shed votes, or barely held steady.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, has a history of Islam that is relaxed and inclusive. In some parts of Java, the densely populated island of verdant rice fields and dormant volcanoes, elements of Sufism, even hints of leftover Hinduism, are incorporated into Islamic practice.

Indonesia also has a history since its independence in 1949 of separation of mosque and state. The Parliament reaffirmed that stance in a vote two years ago.

The Justice Party does not see things that way. As a small but fast growing, exquisitely organized party, it is well poised to capitalize on dissatisfaction with the downhill economic and social trends that the secular parties, stuffed with avaricious politicians, have chosen to ignore.

The Justice Party means business. A cadre-based organization with 400,000 core members who are obliged to attend small weekly “learning circles” - party cells, in plain language - the party worked hard for its results Monday.

“They showed that having a focused message works,” said Paul Rowland, the resident representative of the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based electoral education organization.

In the old Parliament, the Justice Party held seven seats. In the new Parliament, it could hold more than 40, a small but potentially potent voice in the 550-seat Legislature. Unofficial results from Monday's election show the party surpassed the 5 percent popular vote benchmark and qualified for the first time to field a presidential candidate. Counting is not expected to be completed for another week.

By 2009, the next cycle of national elections, it expects to be one of the major parties, a not unreasonable prospect as the field of 24 parties that fielded candidates in this year's election dwindles through attrition.

“We are going to win the elections in 2009 in the big cities," said a confident Zulkieflimansyah, 31, a Western-educated economist and party leader, as he was driven to his polling place in one of Jakarta's middle class areas soon after dawn on election morning.

Indonesia's political realignment of devolving more power to the regions is already under way, and will be well entrenched by then. That will make it possible for the party to win a lot of governorships, he said.

What does the party believe in? “For us, politics is one of the ways to spread true Islam, one of the ways of enlightenment,” he said. “Islam is not what many in the West see: a sword in the left hand, a Koran in the right hand.”

Islam is a way of life, he said. “We say Islam can be used as a framework for solutions.” This means that the Justice Party favors the introduction of Islamic law. Because he has experience in the West, including five years studying in Britain, Zulkieflimansyah hastened to try to allay fears. Islamic law, he added, does not mean cutting off hands and feet as a method of punishment.

About 40 percent of the party's candidates for Parliament were women. They appeared on candidate lists wearing very conservative dress that is still unusual in Indonesia. Dressed all in white, they favored severe head coverings that left no room for stray hair.

Zulkieflimansyah insisted that the party's interpretation of Islam meant women were not relegated to the kitchen.

But according to his wife, Niken Saptarini, who holds a master's degree in economics from a British university and who lectures once a week at the University of Indonesia, she will need permission from her husband if she wants to work more. Although she is chafing at her domesticity, she has not been given that permission yet, she said, and their four children come first.

What is most novel about the Justice Party is its soft-sell approach to politics and its direct application of American marketing techniques.

Zulkieflimansyah speaks knowledgeably about how Philip Kotler, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, in Evanston, Illinois, helped perfect the appeal of Pampers disposable diapers, even to mothers who found it tough to afford such an up-market brand. Frequency of contact and an upbeat message were essential to Pampers' success, he said.

Similarly with the Justice Party.

Attendance at the weekly “learning circle” is compulsory for the cadres. The first 10 minutes are devoted to discussing chosen verses from the Koran and their application to the situation in Indonesia, Zulkieflimansyah said. In his “learning circle,” 9 of the 10 members hold doctorates, he added.

For the just-concluded elections, the “learning circles” concentrated on five points: the party's determination to battle corruption, unemployment, lack of education, erosion of social capital and the threat of disintegration of Indonesia because of civil conflict.

The latter represented an appeal to the nationalist feeling that runs strong among Indonesians. Islamic belief was the unspoken but obvious common thread running through the platform.

The United States has not entirely ignored the import of the Justice Party.

The American Embassy in Jakarta last year awarded Zulkieflimansyah a six-week trip to the United States, where he met senators and mayors, academics and ordinary people, on the International Visitor Program.

Zulkieflimansyah, who easily won his parliamentary seat, is not shy to point out that previous participants in the program, among them Tony Blair and Hamid Karzai, are now world leaders.