Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

Can Indonesia’s Islamists stay competitive?

Reading Time: 4 mins

In Brief

With Indonesia’s national legislative elections approaching in 2014, Islamic parties have signaled a pragmatic shift to the centre to garner popular support.

Their party platforms no longer feature the establishment of sharia law and other Islamic agendas,


  • A
  • A
  • A


  • A
  • A
  • A

and they are turning to more pluralistic political reforms and adopting democracy as their main strategy to win the political contest.
Nevertheless, the struggle for sharia law has not been abandoned, but only relegated to the back burner.

The shift to a pluralist agenda may reflect the declining popularity of Islamic parties in Indonesia. The popular vote of Islamic parties has declined significantly from its peak in 1999. The United Development Party gained about 11 per cent of the vote in 1999 but only got 8 per cent in 2004 and 5 per cent in 2009. Meanwhile, the National Awakening Party earned around 13 per cent in 1999, but only 11 percent in 2004 and less than 5 per cent in 2009. The National Mandate Party saw a similar decline. On the other hand, the more progressive Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) has performed slightly better. PKS has run in elections since 2004, when it won about 7.3 per cent of the vote. In 2009 that increased to 7.88 per cent.

The decline in votes for Islamic parties was not merely due to the change in their political orientation. There were also other contributing factors, such as mismanagement, corruption, internal conflict, lack of leaders and poor performance in government, particularly at the provincial and regional levels. These factors explain why PKS, which won in the West Java Gubernatorial election of 2008, was unable to prevent the Muslim-backed candidate for governor of Jakarta from losing to an outsider backed by the secular Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle in the 2012 gubernatorial election.

This shift in voter support poses questions for Islamic parties. Can they still advocate sharia law and an Islamic state? What would happen if Islamic parties try to impose sharia law on Indonesia? Will increasing religious conservatism among the population prompt Islamic parties to change their political strategy?

Although Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world — comprising 85 per cent of the country — there are many Muslims, apart from non-Muslims, who have opposed previous attempts to include sharia law in the Jakarta Charter or turn Indonesia into an Islamic state. Islamic groups have factored this sizeable minority in their political campaign and understand that a coercive approach to push an Islamic agenda could threaten the unity of the Indonesian republic and would cause Islamic parties to lose popular support.

Two Islamic groups have traditionally enjoyed political power in Indonesia — the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. But following the collapse of the Suharto regime many different Islamic groups have flourished in a decentralised political system.
The proliferation of Islamic parties has caused a fragmentation of voter support and weakened their ability to unite on a single agenda.

Party leaders recognise that fragmentation is a problem: the deputy secretary general of PKS, Mahfudz Siddiq, recently stated that if the Islamic parties want to have an Islam-oriented presidential candidate, they must maintain effective communication between themselves. Internal friction and disputes among the parties must also be settled.
The chief subject of debate among Islamic parties is sharia law. But just bringing up the issue creates tension among potential voters.

Even within individual Islamic groups there are different views pertaining to sharia law, leading to unwarranted competition among the dominant Islamic parties.

Meanwhile, nationalist parties have joined the fight to win Islamist votes. As voters become more conservative, nationalist parties are beginning to support sharia-based policies in some provinces and districts.
While growing conservatism provides a chance for Islamic parties to boost their electoral appeal, they will need to change their approach to compete against the nationalist parties. Islamic parties need to improve their record in solving mismanagement issues, settling internal frictions and eradicating corruption. Convincing the public they can govern will not be an easy task. The massive flow of information both from mainstream and social media makes the situation even more complex.

Islamic parties may need to decide to either maintain their current pragmatic approach or ‘re-Islamise’ their strategy. It is paramount for the Islamic parties to overcome their declining performances. The various Islamic groups have little choice but to consolidate themselves into a unified political movement and modify their strategy to appeal to an increasingly conservative and critical electorate.

Adhi Priamarizki is a Research Analyst with the Indonesia Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

This article was first published here as RSIS Commentary No. 005/2013.

Comments are closed.

Support Quality Analysis

The East Asia Forum office is based in Australia and EAF acknowledges the First Peoples of this land — in Canberra the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people — and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.

Article printed from East Asia Forum (

Copyright ©2024 East Asia Forum. All rights reserved.