Christian Participation in Indonesian Elections: Two Strategies

Robert Go of the Straits Times reports on two different strategies for religious minorities to participate in the Indonesian elections:

By establishing their own political party:

JAKARTA – In Muslim-dominated Indonesia, one party stands out – the Prosperous Peace party (PDS), the only party representing the Protestant and Catholic minorities.

Established in 2001, it is a fairly new entrant to the political scene. It is also the only one – of seven – parties to pass the selection criteria of the General Election Commission (KPU).

PDS members are mostly professionals drawn from small prayer groups which united gradually over time.

They spell hope for the Christian minorities, accounting for about 10-11 per cent of the population, whose voices did not find representation during the Suharto era.

PDS hopes this will translate to votes.

Among those who are optimistic is Mr Toga Sianturi, who is contesting a seat in North Sumatra‘s parliament.

‘God willing, I will be successful,’ he said.

‘There are many Christians in this province, and I think they will support the party.’

Mr Sianturi’s reason for hope is that around 40 per cent of North Sumatrans are Christians.

But political observers believe the party faces an uphill struggle.

Church and community leaders here said Christians are loyal to Golkar and President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P.

Those two nationalist and secular parties together took nearly 70 per cent of the vote in the 1999 general election.

Analyst Henry Sitorus argued that even if Christian voters abandon the two big parties, they will likely go for smaller newcomers with nationalist ideologies.

Another analyst, Dr S.B. Simanjuntak, said Christians realise they belong to a minority, so they will be careful about stirring up trouble by voting along religious lines.

Or by supporting the major political parties:

SEMATANG SIANTAR (North Sumatra) – The candidate was Protestant, but the final prayer closing the political rally was Islamic.

Ethnic Chinese faces dotted the 500-strong crowd in Pematang Siantar, North Sumatra’s second largest city.

A vocal group of women wearing party-sponsored tee shirts with the slogan “Fight injustice against women, we demand equality” were standing visibly up front.

Though the key fight in this year’s elections is still between Golkar and President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), a new game is being played in the background.

Analysts and its proponents describe it as the politics of inclusion – where political parties that at one time pitched solely for Muslim votes are now looking at non-traditional voters as well – to maintain their political grip.

Right now, the best practitioner of the new politics appears to be the party of former president Abdurrahman Wahid – the National Awakening Party (PKB).

Critics argue that in a country that is just waking up from more than three decades of one-party rule and a strict adherence to one political ideology, this new approach might well become critical, and very attractive, to voters in the future.

In 1999, PKB’s main image was that of a Muslim-based party.

Its strongest association was to Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country’s biggest Islamic organisation that the grandfather of Gus Dur, as Mr Abdurrahman is popularly known here, started, and which his family dominated.

But since then, the party has started to shed that image and PKB has made progress in forging links with the ethnic minorities.

Mr Bara Hasibuan, a Christian who is actively campaigning for the PKB and is an election candidate, is a poster boy for the new brand of politicking.

“It’s about time we address the equality issue,” he said.

“We can’t move ahead as long as ethnic and religious fault lines separate the people.”

He has received endorsements from church groups, Islamic boarding schools and ethnic-Chinese businessmen.

And such has been his appeal that some of those subjected to discrimination due to their links to the PKI, the communist party that was blamed for a failed coup d’etat in 1965, have also responded to the messages pitched by Mr Hasibuan and the PKB.

Mr Abdurrahman’s party is not the only one to forge new alliances with minority groups.

Dr Amien Rais’ National Mandate Party (PAN) has positioned itself the same way.

Golkar and PDI-P, too, are stressing their secular-nationalist credentials.

But PKB seems to have gone far to be the only party with concrete examples of inclusion to tout.

During his presidency from late 1999 to July 2001, Gus Dur laid the framework for this when he made the Chinese New Year a national holiday and legalised the use of Chinese writing.

The PKB has also argued staunchly against the inclusion of syariah Islamic principles in Indonesian laws.

Said ethnic Chinese businessman Bambang Sungkono, who is also a treasurer of PKB’s national leadership board: “If you look at the different parties, the PKB is the only one that has done anything on these issues.

“If Christians, ethnic Chinese and other minority groups are looking for the real inclusive attitude, they don’t have to go further than Gus Dur and PKB.”

Democracy is an awfully messy way to run a country, but both Malaysia and Indonesia give grounds for hope of a continuing democratic transformation that could serve as models for other regions.

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