Indonesia (scholarly contributions)

Ulla Fionna

ISEAS Perspective No. 15 – 21 March 2013

Ulla Fionna: Indonesian Parties Struggle for Electability

In February 2013, leaders of Indonesia’s two major political parties were detained on graft suspicions. The arrests of Partai Keadilan Sejahtera’s (PKS, Prosperous Justice Party) president Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq, and Partai Demokrat’s (PD, Democratic Party) chairman Anas Urbaningrum have jeopardized their respective parties’ electoral prospects. While Luthfi has been arrested for suspicions over special favours for certain beef importers, Anas — previously linked to other corruption cases — has allegedly received a luxury car as a bribe for fixing a government construction contract for the Hambalang sports centre project. The arrests followed a string of other high profile party politicians who are facing cor-ruption charges. Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi, KPK) have previously detained Andi Mallarangeng (former Sports and Youth Affairs Minister), and jailed Angelina Sondakh (PD’s deputy secretary general) and Muhammad Nazaruddin (PD’s former treasurer). Late last year, the Jakarta Corruption Court has also sentenced Wa Ode Nurhayati, a former member of the House of Representatives budgetary committee from the Partai Amanat Nasional (National Mandate Party). For the parties involved, a lot is riding on the back of these cases. With the 2014 general election looming, parties need to figure out how to react and manage these crises. Internal conflicts and organisational problems also have to be addressed urgently. More broadly, these cases highlight the fact that the costs of party politics are high in Indonesia, and the systemic problems of party corruption needs urgent attention from the parties and the state.2 PKS: THE


Born of the Jemaat Tarbiyah (Education Movement), PK (Partai Keadilan, Justice Party), the predecessor of PKS, was founded in 1998. After failing to gain a minimum of 2% of the national votes in 1999, which was necessary to qualify for the next elections, the party was re-constituted as PKS in 2003 to run in the 2004 elections. As the largest Islamic party in Indonesia, which prides itself as ”clean and caring”, the PKS also has impressive or­ganisational prowess, rivalled only by Partai Golkar, which has been dominant over the 32 years of the New Order’s rule. PKS’ young, committed, and technology-savvy cadres are the backbone of the frequent and wide-ranging activities at the grassroots. By itself, or in partnership with NGOs, PKS has developed a variety of activities, ranging from the regular pengajian (Quranic study group), to regular welfare and healthcare services for the poor, social services for women, to information sessions for young Muslim couples and exhibition of Islamic caricatures.

Another pillar of its success is its focused and well-managed recruitment and mobilisa­tion exercises. PKS attracts committed members because it successfully convinces them to be politically active as devout Muslims, while promising them non-discriminatory oppor­tunities to attain political power — something that was denied them under the authoritarian Suharto regime. Still another success factor for PKS is its ability to not rely too much on personalities. While support for Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (National Awakening Party, PKB) is still heavily influenced by the lingering charisma of the late Abdurrahman Wahid (former president of Indonesia), and for Partai Demokrasi Indonesia Perjuangan (Indonesian Democratic Party Struggle, PDIP) by the first president Sukarno and his daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri; leadership succession in PKS has been smooth, frequent, and democratic.

The irony for this Islamic party is that it became more popular (gaining 7.34% of na­tional votes in 2004 and 7.88% in 2009) after moving away from the goal of establishing an Islamic Indonesian state after its poor 1999 election results (1.36% votes). The party platform has shifted quite dramatically from focusing on strongly Islamic messages, to moderation by featuring the promotion of good and clean/corruption-free governance. PKS also declared itself inclusive. One of its taglines “PKS for all” opens the party to non- Muslims, and now it boasts about a dozen parliamentary members from Christian majority electoral districts. Perhaps most surprising for its staunchly Islamic supporters was its deci­sion to form coalitions with parties with different ideologies, including the Christian Partai Demokrasi Sejahtera (Prosperous Democratic Party, PDS), in local elections.

For the PKS, the pressure to stay popular while maintaining a clean image seems increasingly difficult to balance. Internal cracks are growing over how to carry the party for­ward, in particular over how to promote Islamic piety without alienating the majority nominal Muslims. Meanwhile, its clean image has been dented by accusations of graft and embez­zlement from former party pioneer Jusuf Supendi. No longer with the party, he alleges that party leaders have been involved in various embezzlement and corruption cases, and has reported them to the KPK. One of the leaders that Supendi accuses is Luthfi’s replace­ment, Anis Matta, who has also been linked to a corruption case. With a string of other allegations of corruption by party cadres, it seems that the party has been suffering hit after hit, but Luthfi’s arrest is definitely the biggest blow to the party’s bid for one of the top three positions in the 2014 elections.


Put simply, PD is President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s (SBY) party. It was first built as a vehicle for SBY who was seen as a more suitable running candidate for Megawati Sukarnoputri’s (Mega) bid for presidency in 2004, than Partai Persatuan Pembangunan’s (PPP, United Development Party) Hamzah Haz who once said that voting for a female president is haram (forbidden) in Islam. When Haz was chosen by Mega anyway, some en­trepreneurs and academics decided to launch a separate political base for SBY in the form of PD. As support for direct presidential election and SBY quickly developed, so did the party. After PD was launched nationally in October 2002, the party council and branches quickly accelerated the process of getting ready for the 2004 elections.

Because of this rush, PD’s organisation is not as solid as PKS’s. To meet the require­ments that a party must have branches in two-thirds of all provinces and two-thirds of the regencies (kabupaten)/cities in these provinces, the party implemented no criteria for reg­istration as party members and candidates and admitted whoever was interested and let them run for election. The party’s central office had very little control over these practices. The central leadership was then dominated by businesspeople and academics with lim­ited political experience. Consequently, the people who were interested to join were those who saw better opportunities for access to power through this new party, compared to the more established and thus saturated PDIP or Partai Golkar.

Undoubtedly, SBY himself is the star of the party. Reluctant at first, he only joined the party campaign after his high-profile resignation from Mega’s cabinet, just a few weeks be­fore the legislative election in 2004. His resignation and appeal for change attracted a lot of sympathy from the public, especially after he had been excluded from cabinet meetings by Mega. His dramatic rise in popularity became the main driver for the party, especially since it did not have strong grassroots organisations. PD became the fourth largest party — after Partai Golkar, PDIP, and PPP — in parliament after obtaining 7.4% of votes in 2004. For the presidential election, PD decided to pair SBY with Jusuf Kalla, a leading Partai Golkar figure and businessman, and won after defeating Mega in the second round.

Despite SBY’s popularity and relative success in his presidency, his party has deterio­rated after his inauguration. He decided to appoint only one out of nine ministerial candi­dates that his party proposed, displeasing party pioneers and leaders. SBY’s intervention resulted in what can only be called the institutionalisation of his power in the party. His brother-in-law Hadi Utomo became the party chairman (after some negotiation from SBY’s wife Bu Ani); SBY himself was named chairman of Dewan Pembina (Advisory Council, the highest body in the party); Edi Baskoro Yudhoyono, SBY’s son, became head of leadership training (known as Ibas, he has since been promoted to his current position as secretary general); and another of Bu Ani’s brothers, Hartanto Edhi Wibowo, headed the party’s department of state-owned companies.

The party then moved to recruit experienced politicians such as Andi Mallarangeng (a political scientist and media commentator) and Anas Urbaningrum (former Muslim Students’ Association chairman), while senior members were sidelined to the advisory council. For the 2009 elections, SBY’s popularity was further boosted by his populist programmes, such as unconditional cash handouts (Bantuan Tunai Langsung, BLT), health insurance for the poor, and fuel price reduction. Meanwhile, the election campaign by the party utilised SBY’s personal charisma highlighting his achievements and policies through the media, while door-to-door campaigning was also done aggressively. The 2009 general elections saw PD becoming the most popular party in the country with more than 20% of the votes. Ibas, Hartanto Edhi Wibowo, and Hadi Utomo’s son Nurcahyo Anggoro were all elected to parliament, strengthening the SBY family’s influence in PD. The presidential election that followed cemented SBY’s popularity even further. The coalition with Partai Golkar broke up soon after the 2009 general elections, as PD grew confident that now it could have greater control of who SBY’s running candidate would be. Eventually, SBY chose Boediono, a non-partisan economist and ex-Bank Indonesia governor, and they won by a landslide.

After 2009, SBY seemed to have lost his control of the party for a while, when Anas Urbaningrum won the chairman position, although SBY has strongly indicated his backing for another candidate. SBY then quickly reasserted his power by establishing the Majelis Tinggi (High Assembly, MT) — a new body tasked with all strategic decisions such as presi­dential candidates, coalition partners, and candidates for local elections. Anas, however, is ambitious and relentless. Although his name had been closely linked to several corruption charges (most notably, Muhammad Nazaruddin accused him as one of the people most responsible for the Hambalang case) and until early February 2013 he had endured mount­ing pressure to resign from other party officials, he kept his position in the hope of making a bid for the 2014 presidential candidacy. Intra-party conflict was so severe that SBY had to step in and intervene, yet again.


Both PKS’s and PD’s electability suffered severely because of the arrest of their leaders. The latest poll placed PKS seventh among the 10 competing parties, while PD is fourth — a serious decline compared to its big win in 2009. Although PKS leaders have played down these statistics, they did admit that Luthfi’s arrest has forced their popularity to take a nose dive. Similarly for PD, polls suggest that it is now perceived as the most corrupt party in the country. Alarmingly for PD, as much as 51% of respondents identified the party as the most corrupt, while Partai Golkar came second with only 5.4%. This poll was conducted before Anas’ arrest, so party officials are bracing themselves for even worse results in the near future.

Looking further into the aftermath of these arrests, how the parties have reacted could raise concerns. Anis Matta claimed that the arrest was a conspiracy against the party. Although other party leaders then tried to soften this accusation by focusing on visitation programmes from national leaders to visit grassroots branches for consolidation and call­ing for ”national repentance” to deal with the crisis, the defiance demonstrates the party’s refusal to respect the law. Things are no different in PD, with Anas commenting that his ar­rest “is only the first page” — fuelling speculations that he will reveal other cases of corrup­tion involving other important national figures. These reactions and comments indicate the plausible gravity of these scandals, and the fierce party competition before the elections. It also points to Anas’ resentment towards the lack of support from SBY, and created a more intense rift between his supporters and SBY’s in the party. Just days before Anas’ arrest, he was ordered by the Majelis Tinggi (headed by SBY) to focus on his legal problems, while Ibas Yudhoyono stepped down from parliament to assist with PD’s internal consoli­dation. However, Anas, who is under house arrest, has been visited by numerous national politicians and figures, indicating his popularity and the support he has garnered. So now, although Ibas has been named as a strong candidate to replace Anas, SBY may want to be more tactful in managing his family’s interest in the party.

PD serves as a strong warning against relying too much on leadership charisma and the failure to establish solid party machinery. Long before SBY served both his terms, the party should have established a more solid platform and machinery that could carry it past the convenience of having a charismatic leading figure. Unfortunately for PD, SBY does not seem to realise this. His grip on the party is now even stronger after Anas is ousted. Unless SBY decentralises authority and limits his family’s influence, the party’s image and future will be compromised even further.

From the organisational point of view, the case of PKS paints a depressing picture. A showcase of solid organisational capacity, the party still suffers from disunity and the chal­lenge of maintaining a solid Islamic outlook that is non-discriminative. The party needs to settle internal differences once and for all, and then decide which direction it is going to take, in order to retain popularity and votes.

The trend of internal conflict (although not corruption-related) is also observed in the case of Partai Nasdem (National Democratic Party). Backed by some of the most prominent figures in Indonesian media and academics, Partai Nasdem seems to be the one to watch for the next election, which will be its first. However, days after the Election Commission (KPU) announced the allocated numbers for the 10 contesting parties, the party was deserted by one of its founders, media mogul Hary Tanoesoedibjo. Claiming that his wish to see the younger generation lead the party has been disapproved by national council chairman Surya Paloh, who prefers the more mature/experienced politicians, Hary

resigned and triggered a mass exodus of his followers. His media empire and financial strength would certainly have been an asset for the party campaign and, needless to say, the party’s electoral chances are worse off as a result. Although the cause behind the unravelling of Partai Nasdem seems different from what is happening in PKS and PD, the case confirms the intense pressure to find the best electoral strategy.

The rise and fall of political parties in a democracy is normal, and a consolidated de­mocracy will select which parties will survive eventually. From this point of view the scan­dals can be seen as positive as they point to the corrupt practices of parties and indeed the depth of party corruption in Indonesia. The parties seen as the least corrupt and can function the best should survive better, and parties are taking note of this. However, the high cost of establishing a new party and indeed party politics in general, have led parties to corrupt practices. For instance, a new party has to have branches in at least two-thirds of all provinces and two-thirds of all regencies in all these provinces — leading to high start-up costs. The reduction in state party financing, and the frequency of direct local elections have produced corrupt parties with illegal fund-raising activities, and party functionaries who siphon monies off from state budgets for the parties and to enrich themselves. Fierce competition has also forced parties to engage political consultants, which has driven the cost even further. The call for greater transparency for their fund-generating activities may discourage illegal practices. However, whether such a suggestion will be realised in a bill is doubtful. It is quite unlikely that the legislature, made up of party politicians, will vote for a regulation that may complicate their own daily operations. So it is up to the consolidated yet new democracy to find solutions to party finance problems, and to let the voters decide the kind of parties that will survive.

Ulla Fiona is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS.

1 thought on “Indonesia (scholarly contributions)

  1. Pingback: Indonesian Parties Struggle for Electability | Political Party Forum Southeast Asia

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