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The Year of the Snake has begun with what seems
to be bad omens for two leading Indonesian political parties. The Prosperous
Justice Party (PKS) and the Democratic Party (PD) have attempted to resolve
long-standing graft problems by changing their leadership.
The PKS has in
recent years changed from a clean, disciplined and spirited party inspired by
the ideals of the Islamic Brotherhood (Ikhwanul Muslimin) into an “open”
political party and now a “corrupt” one.
The arrest of its chairman
Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq has placed the party in dire straits. Shocked and
embarrassed at appearing hypocritical, the PKS appointed a new leader from among
the party establishment: Anis Matta, an ambitious member who quickly moved to
deal with the party’s tainted image.
Like the PKS, the PD, founded in
2004, is worried about its election prospects in 2014. A conglomerate of
bureaucrats, former officers and activists, the PD saw its electability sharply
decline following the ongoing graft scandal that has implicated its chairman.
Pressed by the party’s top brass, chief patron Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
finally and surprisingly chose to take over the party’s leadership.
in doing so, the ever-cautious Yudhoyono actually left the party on the hook,
waiting yet again for a quick and clear solution and leaving chairman Anas
Urbaningrum seriously challenged.
The responses of Anis — the rising star
of the PKS — and Anas — the PD chair-in-disgrace — are significant. Referring to
the dangers faced by Sengkuni, a legendary (albeit cynical) Javanese figure,
Anas, even before his demise, warned the chief patron and his constituents of
the consequences of his ouster, as he still controls at least a third of the
regional party leaders. Sengkuni, a mischievous adviser often compared to
Metternich, is used here in a pejorative sense, but Anas, a Javanese, apparently
feeling humiliated, added another coded message: “Ojo dumeh!” Please, don’t be
Anis, a devout Buginese Moslem, on the other hand, spoke of a
“Zionist conspiracy” — obviously, a ridiculous accusation — and urged party
members to act like prophets arising victoriously after falling into a deep
Next, he incited their imagination — “act like in the Mission:
Impossible movie and you’ll win!” — and concluded by calling upon them to repent
The symbolic rhetoric used by Anas and Anis may be aimed at
their own constituents to restore their own and their parties’ authority. Soon
after they took over, both were quick to take action and meet with the party’s
rank-and-file members — which Anis did in Medan and Anas in Banten. Anas even
chose to be absent when Yudhoyono assembled the party’s top brass to renew their
commitment to fight graft.
In short, it is as if they were loyal to
Machiavelli’s dictum: “It’s better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be
both.” Meanwhile, nothing has been announced, nor denied, presumably not even
discussed, about the corruption allegations.
In other words, as they
view it, it’s the fate of the political parties — not the state — that is at
stake. And since the issues in both cases ultimately concern party finance,
those symbolic messages are actually meant to warn and encourage, telling
members that a new start is in their best interests.
Although a few
resisted Anis’ appointment in the PKS, Anas, given his faction’s relative
the PD, resisted by blaming Yudhoyono’s administration’s
shortcomings for the party’s problems.
Anas has apparently been able to
maintain his own power base within the party thanks to relationships nurtured
over decades with the Muslim Students Association (HMI) and HMI alumni
Anis and Anas offer a tale of two parties: both
reformist, one with Islam-inspired political ideology and a clear mission, the
other a secular, often labeled “liberal”, consensus-based party without clear
The PKS, though, has gone through important
changes. As early as February 2008, one of its founders, Mashadi, told me in an
interview of his unhappiness with the trends facing the party.
Yusuf Supendi, another PKS founder and critic, Mashadi complained of the growing
split within the party between the “Justice” and the “Prosperous” factions,
implying that the latter were more concerned with power and wealth.
“They are going even more hedonistic,” Mashadi said. Both raised doubts
on the PKS’ ambitions to join the big three parties in 2014, which Anis believes
remains the party’s target.
It was at the PKS congress in June 2010,
held at a cost of Rp 10 billion (US$1.03 million) in Jakarta’s Ritz-Carlton
Hotel, that highlighted the change, as the party formally declared itself an
“open party”, formally abandoning its original mission as a dakwah (Islamic
propagation) party, which in practical terms meant pragmatism for the sake of
achieving power in the long term.
Thus, it became opportunistic or, as
Munarman, the rights activist-turned-Muslim militant put it, a buka-tutup
(sometimes open, sometimes close) political party.
historical experience with charismatic leaders (remember Sukarno), it seems odd
that an ideological party such PKS is lacking a godfather with firm authority to
rely on, whereas a secular party like the PD is depending too much on the one
In both cases, however, they basically depend on public
resources and party clientelism.
And, as the cases reveal, both are
necessarily elite-oriented, even though Anas seems able to maintain some power
base; in fact he is the only member with an organized party base, hence his
As a consequence, rather than relying on
community-based party chapters at the grassroots level, which both parties
largely lack, the PKS and the PD can only call upon their rank and file, or top
leaders, to resolve problems.
This oligarchic developmental pattern may
be the perfect exemplar of post-Soeharto democracy: In the absence of organized
mass action, elitism will continue to prevail and clientelism will tend to be
based on party interests and religious sentiments rather than on national or
The writer is a journalist and the former
Jakarta correspondent for Radio Netherlands.