The University of Melbourne's Professor Tim Lindsey talks to the ABC's Phillip Adams (link is external) about the…
Following weeks of speculation, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) confirmed in early April that it had dismissed one of its former stars, the outspoken lawmaker Fahri Hamzah. Rumours of a rift between the deputy speaker of the national legislature (DPR) and his party had circulated widely for weeks but the party leadership had kept its cards close to its chest.
A dismissal letter signed by PKS chair Mohamad Sohibul Iman and released on 4 April left no doubts as to the party’s position. The letter explained that party efforts to discipline Fahri began back in September 2015, when he was asked to “make adjustments in line with the new direction of the party”. His frequently controversial statements and abrasive style of political communication were deemed counterproductive. In particular, the letter scalded him for calling other members of the legislature “pretty stupid” (rada-rada bloon) and supporting initiatives that contradicted the official party position, such as revisions to the law on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK).
Fahri was one of the party’s most senior figures. Was his dismissal simply a matter of a clash of personalities, or does it represent a shift of power and political strategy in the party?
To further understand the implications of his dismissal, it is important to briefly look back at the history of his involvement with the party. Fahri is a member of the first generation of PKS. During the repressive New Order period, when political activity was severely restricted, he was involved in the Tarbiyah movement, a network of campus-based “cells” that focused on the dissemination of Islamic teachings. Following the fall of Soeharto, Tarbiyah movement leaders formed the Justice Party (PK), the precursor to PKS. In early 1998, Fahri also served as the first chairman of the Indonesian Muslim Students Action Front (Kammi), which was among the most vocal movements calling for regime change. As one of the largest university-based student organisations, Kammi has continued to be fertile ground for party recruitment and mobilisation.
PKS has long benefited from Fahri’s forthright nature. He was frequently deployed as an attack dog to defend the party. When former PKS chair Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq was caught by the KPK in 2013, Fahri stood up for the party in the face of huge public outrage. Luthfi was eventually sentenced to 18 years in prison for accepting bribes to use PKS influence in the Ministry of Agriculture to increase the import quota of a beef importer. It was revealed that Luthfi had taken a third wife, aged just 19, and his assistant, Ahmad Fathanah, had laundered bribe money by offering gifts, such as cars and diamonds, to 45 women. With the party’s reputation in tatters, Fahri attempted to shift public opinion by saying that the scandal was the product of a grand conspiracy between the KPK and the Palace.
Apparently Fahri’s combative style is now at odds with the party’s policy direction. But it is still surprising that PKS would dismiss him from all levels of PKS membership, considering his longstanding engagement with the party. Not all PKS members who have violated party discipline, including former head Luthfi, have received such total punishment. It is not hard to understand why Fahri would cry: “What are my sins?” The legislator has filed a lawsuit with the South Jakarta District Court challenging his dismissal and will attempt to cling on to his position in the legislature in the meantime.
The harsh treatment of Fahri can be understood when put in its broader political context. First, it is important to look back to September 2015 and the PKS 2015 National Conference, or Munas, which saw sweeping changes to the party leadership structure. Sohibul replaced Anis Matta as party president, and Fahri lost his position as deputy secretary general.
The newly installed leadership has embarked on a project to restore the party’s reputation following the corruption scandal involving Luthfi. Senior party figures were reportedly devastated by the party’s result in the 2014 legislative election, where its share of the vote fell to 6.8 per cent from 7.8 per cent in 2009 (although many would argue this was a strong performance given the embarrassment caused by the corruption findings).
There is a perception that a so-called “prosperous” camp – including Anis Matta, Fahri Hamzah, and Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq – had been allowed to dominate over the idealistic, justice-focused elements in the party, weakening PKS’s claim to moral superiority. The new leadership installed in 2015 is widely seen as an effort to correct this imbalance.
Second, Fahri’s dismissal also represents the symbolic dissociation of PKS from the Red and White Coalition (Koalisi Merah Putih, or KMP). PKS’s support for losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto effectively shut it out of political power. Although the KMP secured the majority of seats in the national legislature, the coalition has failed to develop into a meaningful opposition. Rather than proposing a concrete alternative political agenda, the coalition appears more interested in participating in unproductive debates that isolate it further from the public. In the eyes of the new PKS leadership, involvement in the KMP does nothing to restore the party’s image.
The visit of the PKS executive board to the Presidential Palace late last year was an early indication of the new leadership’s efforts to distance itself from the KMP. Although PKS chair Sohibul refused to speak publicly about the details of his meeting with President Joko Widodo, his message was clear: PKS is still part of KMP but it will support government policies if they benefit the people. It is not yet known if PKS will follow in the footsteps of other KMP members the Golkar Party and the United Development Party (PPP) and declare its formal support for the ruling coalition.
There are two benefits to severing connections with the KMP. First, it will offer PKS the opportunity to share power in the ruling coalition. This is important in the context of a paternalistic state, where resource distribution is determined predominantly by access to state power. But the ideological enmities with the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P)-led coalition may be too great. And if the new party leadership really wants to project itself as the antithesis of the previous PKS regime, it would be better placed to do so from opposition.
Another advantage of separating from the KMP is that PKS will be able to offer competing policy perspectives, which may help to restore the party’s image and, possibly, broaden its supporter base. The experience of PKS as part of the government coalition during President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s second term (2009-2014), and as an “open” and “inclusive” party, has not, in fact, helped the party to extend its appeal.
In an electoral democracy, PKS, and political Islam in general, faces a dilemma between piety and pragmatism. PKS should view this tension as a challenge to reformulate its strategy and offer a true alternate vision. This is the most viable road to power at both the national and local levels. The party’s symbolic dissociation from the KMP, through the dismissal of Fahri Hamzah, is a turning point for PKS and its new leadership as they seek to navigate the party in a new direction.