Voters can unite and use the ballot to silence fundamentalism

Posted on 27/03/2014 - 13:00

Alyaa Alhadjri

SUBANG JAYA: Voters can use their collective strength to combat fundamentalism by voting out people who incite racial or religious sentiments for political gains.

An Indonesian professor on politics said this would put pressure on political parties to stop using racial and religious issues in their campaigns.

Such a trend of using voter power to fight fundamentalism was already apparent in the Indonesian landscape, said Professor Ramlan Surbakti of Indonesia's Airlangga University.

"Indonesians tend to dislike political parties that are very fundamentalistic in terms of religion or too radical in terms of ideologies," he told theantdaily in an interview. Ramlan was in Malaysia as a panel member of the Bersih 2.0 "People's Tribunal" on the 13th general election.

He defined fundamentalism as a religious movement or point of view characterised by a return to fundamental principles by rigid adherence to those principles and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism.

"There are four or five Islamist parties that will be contesting in the upcoming elections but public support is geared more towards nationalistic parties,”

said Ramlan, a former deputy chairman of Indonesia's Election Commission.

According to statistics from the Indonesian Public Selection Commission, there are 185,822,507 registered voters eligible to cast their ballots at 546,278 polling stations for the 560 seats in the national House of Representatives.

Ramlan noted that Muslims made up an overwhelming majority of the electorate, consistent with Indonesia's status as the world's largest Muslim nation.

He said the trend of moving away from fundamentalism could be seen in the preparations of Islamist parties for the upcoming polls.

"The Parti Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS) is like the Ikhwanul Muslimin of Indonesia but its current members now include non-Muslims," said Ramlan, in referring to the Egyptian Islamist group whose 529 members were sentenced to death on March 25 for supporting ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

It was reported in Indonesian media that PKS had since 2008 relaxed its stance to allow for non-Muslim members and also recently identified several Christian candidates to contest in seats across Eastern Indonesia where there is a significant presence of Christian voters.

In practice the party had to alter its usually hardline stance to a more amenable position to appease the more moderate electorate.

In terms of cooperation between Islamist and nationalist parties, Ramlan said Indonesia's House of Representatives currently comprises legislators from nine political parties and it is sometimes "difficult to make a distinction" between their respective stands.

"The parties shared similar views in a lot of issues (debated) except for a major exception (in 200 when the House passed an anti-pornography law," he explained.

Based on his observation of Malaysia's political landscape, Ramlan said that PAS as the only Islamist party is also seen as becoming more open in its stand.

"I can see that Malays in urban areas have already opened their minds (to reject fundamentalist views) and I believe that political parties will follow the people," he said.

Ramlan also noted that Indonesia's progress had started in 1999 when the republic held its first democratic elections after the downfall of former president Soeharto and his New Order autocratic regime.

"I think religion, ethnic sentiment and race have never been a problem in Indonesia ... Such sentiments are not an issue, at least in the contest for seats at legislative levels.

"Things may be slightly different in the provincial elections but now we already have two vice-governors who are of Chinese descent so this shows a move beyond ethnic sentiments," he said.

Asked on the influence of fundamentalist or right-wing NGOs in local politics, similar to Muslim-Malay groups in Malaysia, Ramlan said they represented a minority voice whose "extreme" views are up against the two largest Muslim bodies in Indonesia -- the Nahdatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah.

"Mainstream Muslims in Indonesia are very tolerant and democratic even though we have small groups of 'terrorists'," he added.

Support for both NU and Muhammadiyah, Ramlan said, is also translated into votes for two political parties -- the Parti Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB) and Parti Amanat Nasional (PAN).

This shows how political support and ballot for moderate parties can silence the fundamentalist factions as their desire for popular support will require them to change or be sidelined.