Wednesday, July 01, 1998

Post-Suharto Indonesia sees rise in ethnic and religious parties

The Nation Editorial & Opinion

For decades Indonesia has had three political parties; now there are more than 30, but some are worried about parties which fan ethnic and religious feelings, writes Andreas Harsono.

Freed from the shackles of dictatorship, Indonesians are exercising their new political freedom with great enthusiasm, having set up more than 30 political parties, including some advocating women's rights, the defence of ethnic Chinese and the protection of the environment.

''The plug which had been clogging the bottle of democracy for years is now unplugged,'' said J B Kristiadi of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, referring to the iron-fist rule of former president Suharto, who had been in power since 1965 until he was forced to resign on May 21.

For more than three decades Suharto kept a tight rein on political activities with only three recognised political parties, among them his ruling Golkar party, which had emerged victorious without fail in the nation's carefully orchestrated general elections. But President B J Habibie has opened the floodgates, with Indonesia witnessing a profusion of political organisations as citizens prepare for free elections scheduled for next year.

Habibie gave the go-ahead for Indonesians to set up new political parties while his Cabinet set out to draft new laws on elections and parties. The only condition that Habibie has imposed is that all parties must adhere to the state ideology Pancasila and reject communism, whose followers were blamed for an abortive coup in 1965.

One of the most controversial of these new organisations is the Partai Reformasi Tionghwa Indonesia, or the Chinese Indonesian Reform Party, whose aim is ''to defend our rights and create true harmony among Indonesian citizens''. Ethnic Chinese make up less than five per cent of the 202 million population but control most of the nation's retail businesses. They are a regular target of social unrest and were again victims of the riots in mid-May which helped to bring down Suharto.

But not all Indonesians are receptive to the idea of a race-based political party, even the Chinese themselves.

''It will only strengthen the isolationist image of Chinese-Indonesians,'' said Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid of think-tank Paramadina.

The Chinese party also provoked one Indonesian lawyer to vow to set up an ''anti-Chinese party''. The attorney said that he would mobilise the poor and the underclass to confront Chinese politicians.

Nurcholish, along with many religious leaders, also voiced concern over possible adverse repercussions if religiously affiliated political parties were established, especially by the majority Muslims.

The biggest casualty of the new political era is undoubtedly Suharto's Golkar. One of its largest affiliates has already broken away to form a separate party, claiming that Golkar does not represent its members' aspirations. The party's business wing is threatening to follow suit.

''I'm happy that Amien Rais has disclaimed any intention of establishing an Islamic political party,'' Nurcholish said, hoping that Abdurrahman Wahid, the chairman of the 30-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama Muslim organisation, would do likewise.

Amien, the chairman of Indonesia's second largest Muslim organisation, the 25-million strong Muhammadiyah, played a crucial role in forcing Suharto to step down. He has built an alliance with former environment minister Emil Salim, a US-trained economist who is popular in secular circles.

Both Amien and Wahid are widely seen to be the two most influential Muslim figures. Wahid himself had instructed his followers to wait for a fatwa, an official statement from clerics and lay leadership, on the matter, adding that the executive board would soon be convened to issue the fatwa.

The general fear is that an Islamic party will split Indonesian Muslims, who are traditionally divided by different political thinking. It is also feared that some of the more radical Muslims, who frequently use anti-Chinese or anti-Christian rhetoric, plan to exploit racial issues to further their own interests.

Many observers and journalists say the establishment of a single Islamic party is, in the first place, impossible. The Muslims themselves are deeply factionalised. In the long run, a religion-based political party might break up or even lead to the disintegration of the nation.

Others, however, passionately beg to differ. Legal expert Yusril Ihsa Mahendra, senior political figure Hartono Mardjono and ulema (doctors of Islamic law) Ahmad Sumargono, Abdul Qadir Djaelani and Kholil Ridwan are among many Muslim figures who advocate the establishment of an Islamic political party. One of their major arguments is that many countries, for example Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union in Germany, employ religion as their platform. They also point out that Indonesia's only democratic election in 1955 also saw the participation of certain Islamic parties.

''Islam yes! Islamic party yes!'' said Sumargono in a speech delivered in late May. ''We welcome those who want to establish Catholic parties, Christian parties, secular parties or whatever, but don't prevent Muslims from forming an Islamic party for fear that it would endanger the nation,'' Sumarsono said, adding that the fear was a sign of an ''Islamophobia''.

Although the electoral laws are still being drafted, Habibie has himself called on the people not to establish political parties whose platforms are based on SARA, an Indonesian acronym for polarising societal forces centred around differences in tribal affiliations, religion, race and societal groups.

It is still unclear how the SARA issue is to be handled in Indonesia's next election, but noted Muslim figures, including Dr Deliar Noer, have already set up Islamic parties. While declaring the establisment of Partai Ummat Indonesia last week, Noer argued there were no laws preventing Muslims from establishing a political party.

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