Fahri Hamzah’s dismissal from PKS reveals the trials of opposition in Indonesia

The new PKS head, Mohamad Sohibul Imam, is reportedly from the party's more idealistic, justice-focused faction. Photo by M Hilal for PKS.
The new leader of the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), Mohamad Sohibul Iman, is reportedly from the party’s more idealistic, justice-focused faction. Photo by M Hilal for PKS.

 

 

The dismissal of Fahri Hamzah, a deputy speaker of the national legislature, from the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), is a sign of turbulence within this Muslim Brotherhood-inspired party. On Indonesia at Melbourne last month, Luqman-nul Hakim argued that Fahri’s dismissal indicated that the party was trying to restore its reputation following the graft scandal involving its former chairman, Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq. Hakim said that the move reflected the dominance of the party’s idealistic faction over the formerly dominant pragmatic faction and predicted that the party would soon dissociate from the opposition Red and White Coalition (KMP).

 

It may well be true that there is tension between the idealistic and pragmatic factions. The fact that PKS was not able to significantly increase its share of the vote in the last two legislative elections, when it was led by the pragmatic (or “prosperous”) faction, might be behind the decision to dismiss Fahri. The dismissal letter and official statements on Fahri’s case appear to support this view.

 

But PKS is not the only party that has been riven by internal divisions since the 2014 elections. Golkar, National Mandate Party (PAN) and the United Development Party (PPP) have all endured long-running schisms over the question of whether to join the ruling coalition or remain in opposition. These parties’ experiences suggest that the divisions in PKS are fundamentally driven by this broader dilemma, rather than ideological debates within the party. The defining role of money politics in Indonesian politics strengthens this impression.

 

Joining the government can allow political parties to expand their resource base (both in terms of finances and networks) and to gather more votes. Having a position in the ministry, for example, provides opportunities for predatory behaviour focused on accumulating economic resources from the state budget or private companies that implement government projects. These resources are important for funding election campaigns at the national and local levels.

 

In contrast, being in opposition can make it harder for parties to survive, because they lose access to economic resources. This, in turn, can make political contestation more difficult, except for those parties with a strong social base, like the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), or with abundant economic capital, like the Greater Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra).

 

PKS was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and was formed by the campus-based Tarbiyah movement in the early reform era. Although it has expanded its support base, its strongest support continues to come from the urban middle class, located primarily in Java.

 

Remaining in opposition without a strong social basis or sufficient capital will only lead to suffering. Many parties have not been able to sustain an oppositional stance. A little more than one year after the election, almost all parties in the opposition alliance have approached the ruling party, including PKS.

 

Rather than an ideological adjustment, it is much more likely that Fahri’s dismissal represents an attempt by PKS to increase its bargaining power among the ruling parties. This is seen in the equivocal approach of the party toward joining the ruling coalition or remaining in opposition.

 

After Mohamad Sohibul Iman was elected party president, he was hesitant to publicly state whether PKS would join the ruling alliance. A closed-door meeting with President Joko Widodo soon after demonstrated that PKS would attempt to get closer to the government, although Sohibul claimed that the meeting was held purely in the spirit of brotherhood (silaturahmi). The meeting occurred at a time when Jokowi had planned a second cabinet reshuffle and the opposition coalition was in crisis, with its members approaching the ruling coalition one by one.

 

After meeting Jokowi, Sohibul confirmed that PKS would remain in opposition. He announced: “We are a loyal opposition; our loyalty to the administration of Jokowi-JK [Jusuf Kalla] is part of our loyalty to the nation”. When Golkar Party declared its support for the ruling coalition last week, PKS’s advisory council restated its intention to remain in opposition.

 

Sohibul’s ambiguous statement on loyalty reflects the fact that PKS is attempting to increase its bargaining power with the government coalition, at the same time as remaining a formal opposition party. PKS is in a weak position in relation to the ruling coalition. Jokowi has now gained support from parties representing almost 70 per cent of the seats in the legislature, including other Islam-based parties like PAN, PPP and the National Awakening Party (PKB), so does not really need the support of PKS.

 

This ambiguity is borne out in the manoeuvres of PKS in the national legislature. Since Sohibul was elected president, the party has played a dual role: sometimes supporting the government (for example in the Setya Novanto case), and at other times supporting the opposition coalition (such as in proposed revisions to the Law on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK)).

 

Hidayat Nur Wahid, a deputy chairman of PKS’s advisory council, also confirmed this ambiguous position, stating that PKS was not an opposition party, it was just outside the government. He also said that the boundaries between the Red and White Coalition and the ruling coalition were increasingly fluid. PKS need not only align itself with Gerindra in the Red and White Coalition, he said, but it could also partner with other parties.

 

Luqman-nul Hakim argued that PKS’s new leadership should emphasise piety over pragmatism to establish the party as a genuinely distinct alternative to Indonesia’s other political parties. It’s true that PKS has publicly declared its intention to return a more ideological direction, but recent political manoeuvres suggest these intentions will remain rhetoric, and it will continue to favour a pragmatic approach. It will need to because of its weak position in politics. PKS competes for the votes of Indonesian Muslims with other Islam-based parties like PPP, PAN and PKB, while its influence in rural areas and outside Java is limited. Without broadening its social base or improving its financial position, PKS’s share of the vote will remain stagnant.