• Women
  • September 6, 2007
  • 6 minutes read

Democracy can make democrats

Democracy can make democrats

The main question that lies in the debate about Islamic parties and democracy in Indonesia is whether Islamic parties, with their seemingly minimal commitment to democracy, can contribute to the ongoing process of democratisation.

The written commitment of some Islamic parties to implement shari”a might appear to support the idea that Islamic parties will not be able to contribute to the democratic process. However, to rely only on the ideological convictions of the party to evaluate its ability to contribute to democracy might prove inadequate.

Some studies of religious parties, such as the one conducted in 2003 by Stathis N. Kalyvas of the University of Chicago show that religion-inspired political actors are not only bound and restricted by their ideological convictions, but also by the cost-benefit calculation of securing or obtaining power. In order to gain popular support while still maintaining their distinguished character as religious parties, they begin to moderate their political stances. And once a religious party becomes moderate, it has the possibility of contributing to democracy.

One example of this is the experience of Christian Democrat parties in Europe. To use their cases for comparison might at first glance seem preposterous. Today”s European Christian democratic parties, like the Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands – ChristlichSoziale Union in Germany (which won the chancellor seat in 2005) or the Christen-Democratisch en Vlaams in Belgium (which won the greatest number of votes in 2007) are not so different from their socialist or liberal counterparts. They seem to be an integral part of the liberal democratic system in their respective countries.

However, if we trace the roots of these parties, it is clear that they emerged from Catholic movements with the intention to make Catholicism more visible in public life. They are part of the Church”s reaction to the wave of liberalism that coloured the process of democratic consolidation in Europe. These parties still explicitly maintain their commitment toward Christian values in their principle documents, and their stances on issues like abortion are still somehow considered to represent Church opinion.

Despite this, European Christian democrats are not perceived as a threat to democracy; indeed, they are even considered important contributors to democratisation in their respective countries. The question that needs to be answered, therefore, is how these religious parties can be incorporated into their countries” democratic systems.

Kalyvas shows that the answer lies in the willingness and ability of these parties to become more moderate. Such willingness is demonstrated, for example, in their eagerness to build coalitions with secular parties, which requires that they redefine their political identity and moderate their religious agendas.

In Indonesia, the participation of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) in elections has raised concerns and apprehension. It is true that the PKS seeks to implement shari”a in Indonesian society. However, during the period of its participation in Indonesian politics, it has shown a willingness to comply with democratic procedures and to moderate its religious aspirations.

For example, the PKS, which was the Justice Party (PK) at the time, did not campaign for the reinstatement of the seven words of the Jakarta Charter – “with the obligation to observe shari”a by its followers” – during the process of the 1945 Constitutional amendment in 2000. These words were removed on the second day of Indonesian independence, yet many other Islamic groups in Indonesia continue to struggle for the reinstatement these words.

Additionally, the PK also chose Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), former President of Indonesia, as their presidential candidate in the 1998 election, although they did not share the same point of view on the relationship between the state and Islam.

And as Jusuf Wanandi, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, points out, the PKS did not immediately implement shari”a upon winning the local election in Depok and Bekasi, two cities in West Java. The delay should be seen as a positive sign that the PKS does not aim to implement an established narrow understanding of shari”a, but sees shari”a as a system that is open for continuous interpretation.

However, Kalyvas notes that the religious party”s willingness to moderate is not adequate to ensure their incorporation into a democratic system; there must also be an “ability” for them to do so. Interestingly, “the ability to moderate” lies in the willingness of their competitors to allow them to be part of the system. Kalyvas believes that one factor that has led to the failure of the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) to contribute to democratisation in Algeria has been the absence of cooperative attitudes from its secular counterparts, which control the military.

It is very unlikely that Indonesian secular groups will resort to exclusionary means. And, as the example of the FIS shows, the hospitability of secular groups – including their willingness to trust that the process of democratisation – can gradually lead Islamic parties to become increasingly moderate, making the contribution of Islamic parties to democracy possible.

As a result, our chief concern should not be to question the democratic commitment of those involved in the political process, but rather to develop and protect democratic institutions and systems that can foster moderation even on the part of “undemocratic” actors. Democracy is not always consolidated by the presence of democrats; however, democracy itself can make democrats.


* Sri Murniati is a student of political science at Ohio University, Athens. She can be reached at [email protected]. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org