Major Indonesian party taking hardline tack

A woman stands near a stall selling decorations to welcome the upcoming Lunar New Year Year of the Horse in Jakarta on January 30, 2014.

AS ITS popularity dips in recent months, Indonesia's largest Islamic party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), has adopted a more strident tone in a bid to shore up its base.

And observers and officials say there are worrying indications that the party whose founders were inspired by Egypt's Islamist organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, is trying to win over supporters of hardline Islamic groups.

The trigger point, they say, is the arrest of then-party president Luthfi Hassan Ishaaq last January for corruption, and his conviction in December for graft and money laundering.

Party diehards believe Luthfi was set up as part of a bid to discredit their party, which has been bleeding members and supporters who did not strongly subscribe to its end-goal of an Islamic state.

"There's been a change in the party," analyst Al Chaidar of Malikussaleh University in Aceh told The Straits Times.

And many remaining members, he said, fear the party may well face the fate of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood - which was outlawed last year after a military coup overthrew the nation's president, who is from the Muslim Brotherhood.

Political analyst Achmad Sukarsono of Binus University says PKS leaders are moving closer to the party's puritan Muslim voting base, and other Muslim groups, as a way to entrench support.

Senior intelligence officials say several newly recruited party cadres are known to have links with militant groups such as Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), which was founded by firebrand cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.

But PKS MP Hidayat Nur Wahid, leader of the party's parliamentary group, told The Straits Times firmly that no PKS MP or cadre was a member of JAT, which is strongly opposed to Muslims being led by non-Muslims.

"Our ideological foundation differs," he said. "We have non-Muslim MP candidates from regions where Muslims are not predominant like Bali, East Nusa Tenggara, Papua."

But while JAT publicly slams democracy, several other hardline groups are divided on voting in elections, with those in favour saying it is the only way to build political support for their cause of setting up an Islamic state.

Before the 2009 election, the party opened up in a bid to attract wider support, and the move paid off, giving it 57 out of 560 seats in Parliament and 7.9 per cent of the popular vote, its highest in three elections.

Pollsters and observers now fear the party will not be able to win at least 3.5 per cent of the popular vote in the April 9 general election, the minimum required for seats in the national Parliament. Officials and observers say if PKS does not win any parliamentary seats, it might operate underground and be harder to monitor.

Already, the party's links to a militant base worries leaders of other parties, who are wooing key leaders of mainstream Muslim organisations like Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah to their side.

Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) deputy secretary general Hasto Kristianto observed that PKS president Anis Matta often uses the word "attack" in speeches and likened the party's struggle to regain the people's hearts to waging a war against enemies who have conspired against PKS.

"It worries us. He keeps saying attack, attack, attack in his speech. He sees the nation as a target to conquer, to take over," Mr Hasto said in a recent interview.

Political analyst Maswadi Rauf of the University of Indonesia considers PKS' recent moves as a form of desperation.

But, he adds: "There is always a different degree of severity from moderate to extremist in a group. As long as PKS is careful to have the right pick, or anyone who has not breached any Indonesian law, they should be able to get away with it. Voters will decide on polling day whether this is right or wrong."

wahyudis@sph.com.sg

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