A New Cultural Path for Indonesia’s Islamist PKS?

by Steven R. Corman

The CSC has released a new white paper entitled A New Cultural Path for Indonesia’s Islamist PKS? by Mark Woodward, Ali Amin, Inaya Rohmaniyah, and Chris Lundry.  The executive summary is as follows:

With the commencement of Indonesia?s transition to democracy, following 32 years of rule by the military dictator Suharto, political space has opened for dozens of political parties to form and regularly contest elections. The Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (the Prosperity and Justice Party, PKS) is an Islamist party that emerged following the first post-1999 democratic elections, with roots that extend to the pre-Suharto era. Although Indonesia has a history of Islamist political parties that goes back to the founding of the nation, since democratization they have never garnered much support, despite Indonesia?s nearly 90 percent Muslim population.

Political parties are interested in mobilizing the highest number of supporters in order to create legislation that reflects the parties? ideological underpinnings. Often these same ideological underpinnings are tempered in order to broaden the support base of a given party. We show that PKS has faced a dilemma. Sticking with a rigid interpretation of its Islamist foundation alienates some voters who may be sympathetic to a less rigid platform, therefore broadening the party?s base and increasing its electoral success may include tempering its ideological strictness. On the other hand, as a strict Islamist political party, its core supporters are those who agree with its rigid ideological stance. Tempering this stance may alienate the hard core of supporters.

We show that there is increasing tension in the PKS leadership between the two camps over the issue of base broadening. The “justice” faction favors stricter Islamist ideology, and the “prosperity” faction favors tempering the Islamist message in order to draw more electoral support. This tension became manifest during the PKS national convention in February 2011. The convention was held in Yogyakarta, an autonomous region in Central Java that is considered the home of traditional Javanese culture (including mysticism – anathema to the PKS position on religious practice, and a sultan who is traditionally viewed as a caliph). The notion of “culture” in the context of the PKS meeting, therefore, was a fulcrum for party leadership, with the “justice” cadres on one side, and the “prosperity” cadres on the other.

It may be that the apparent embrace of culture is simply a result of the party?s gradualist approach to change. This makes it possible for party cadre to advocate and practice “deculturalized” Islam while their leaders state publically that PKS is “open to culture” and not opposed to traditional practices.