Indonesia’s Islamists struggling to win votes in world’s largest Muslim-majority country


Credit: NDI

Credit: NDI

Islamic-based parties are poised for what could be their worst showing since Indonesia’s democratic era began in 1999. At least two of the parties are polling so low that they might lose any presence in the House of Representatives, The New York Times reports.

“You’re looking at a substantial drop for them,” said Paul Rowland, a Jakarta-based political consultant. “They are not a significant factor,” he tells Times reporter Joe Cochrane:

The slide in popularity, first noticed in the 2009 elections, appears to be worsening despite studies showing that Indonesians are becoming more pious.

Why political Islam has not taken deep root on a national level in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country — where about 90 percent of people are among the faithful — is a complicated question. The reasons lie in Indonesia’s history as a secular nation and in the Islamic parties’ own recent record.

No Islamic-oriented politician has been a serious candidate since direct presidential elections began in 2004. A poll released last week by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta found that the top five contenders in Indonesia’s next presidential election, to be held in July, each represented a secular nationalist party.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and resurgence of Wahhabi/Salafi groups in the wake of the Arab awakening prompted some observers to call for “a renaissance of Islamic pluralism, tolerance and critical thinking.”

Indonesia Nahdlatul_Ulama_Dinamika_Ideologi_Dan_Politik_Kenegaraan“What we are facing today is even more dangerous than physical acts of terrorism: that is, the onslaught of extremist ideology, which is provoking a visceral backlash in the West, in an ever-escalating cycle of hatred and violence,” said Kyai Haji A. Mustofa Bisri, deputy chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s mass Islamic movement, and Holland Taylor, the head of LibForAll and its International Institute of Qur’anic Studies.

With 50 million adherents and some 14,000 madrasahs, the NU is the world’s largest Muslim organization.

Indonesia has been held up as a potential model for Arab transitional states for demonstrating the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and the pluralist potential of its distinctive form of civil Islam.

Widely considered a democratic beacon in a volatile region, Indonesia’s reform process was characterized by a “remarkable opening-up of political space [and] regeneration of civil society.” Its transition reportedly has a particular resonance for U.S. President Barack Obama, who lived there as a child and has lauded its shift from authoritarian rule.

But analysts now say that Indonesian voters are more concerned with reducing poverty and improving education than with the religious symbolism of the Islamic-based parties, the NYT’s Cochrane adds:

“The Islamic parties have very little economic credibility,” said Gregory Fealy, an associate professor of Indonesian politics at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Beyond that, a poll released March 31 by the Indonesia Network Elections Survey found that less than 1 percent of voters supported a political party because it represented their particular religious beliefs.

“Sixty years ago, people thought that politics and religious behavior were inseparable in Indonesia. It was a part of the Islamic identity to vote for an Islamic political party,” Mr. Fealy said. “Today you can express your piety but vote for anyone you want.”


Kosovo’s Crucial Year

kosovo ilirFollowing the breakthrough normalization agreement with Serbia one year ago, the Republic of Kosovo faces several crucial tests this year. Ilir Deda (left), a leading Kosovar analyst, civil society leader and political activist, will explain why it is vital that Pristina move now to tackle the array of challenges that loom in 2014. 

Mr. Deda served as Chief of Staff and Senior Political Adviser to President Atifete Jahjaga until his return in 2012 to his position as Executive Director of the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research (KIPRED), a leading Kosovo think-tank.  Mr. Deda was one of the co-founders of the FER party (together with the current Mayor of Pristina Shpend Ahmeti who is now the deputy in Self-determination Movement.)  Mr. Deda also served as a political adviser to the first Kosovo Prime Minister,  Bajram Rexhepi, in 2003-2004.  He has also been an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kosovo and is the author of three Kosovo reports of Freedom Houses Nations in Transit annual publications, among other works.

The Center for Transatlantic Relations cordially invites you to

Kosovo’s Crucial Year

Ilir Deda (Executive Director, Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development (KIPRED), Pristina, Kosovo)

Moderated by:

Edward P. Joseph, CTR Senior Fellow

10:00 – 11:30 pm  Tuesday, April 15, 2014 Room 500, Bernstein-Offit-Building


Venezuela: Maduro’s dialog an ‘exercise in cynicism and manipulation’?

VZlacoaA coalition of Venezuelan opposition parties says it is willing to enter into talks with the government as long as certain conditions are met, the BBC reports:

The meeting was proposed by foreign ministers of the Unasur regional group to put an end to two months of anti-government protests. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had earlier agreed to take part. It is not yet clear though whether his government will agree to the terms demanded by the opposition.

In a letter addressed to the Unasur delegation, the umbrella opposition group Table for Democratic Unity (MUD) said it was “willing to hold a true dialogue, with a clear agenda, equal conditions [for both sides] and the first meeting of which will be transmitted live on national radio and television channels”.

But some opposition figures said talks must be televised, mediated by a third party and have a set agenda after Maduro offered to meet his opponents today “without previous conditions or agenda.”

“To begin the dialogue there needs to be a clear gesture from the government,” Popular Will’s representative at the Unasur meeting, Luis Florido, said in a post on his Twitter account made after Maduro’s statement. Authorities “must free Leopoldo Lopez and the political prisoners. That’s our stance.”

But as the international community continues to tip-toe toward engagement, Venezuela is currently more polarized than at any time in its recent history, says a leading analyst.

The divide between the regime and the opposition is deeper than ever, Juan Nagel writes for Democracy Lab’s Transitions:

The opposition believes democracy has been severely degraded during the chavista era, and many are now openly calling Maduro a dictator. While the government is proud of its high-tech electoral system, the opposition thinks it is grossly unfair: Numerous irregularities are routinely reported, but they are seldom investigated. ….A recent opinion poll by local pollster IVAD suggests that a majority of Venezuelans (55 percent) share the opposition’s view on democracy in the country. The government claims to believe that the right to protest is legitimate, but the opposition, currently undersiege in the streets of Venezuela’s main cities, strongly disputes that.

Judging by recent electoral outcomes, the two sides in this struggle are of roughly equal size. But their outlooks are so radically different that it sometimes seems as if they live in different countries altogether, writes Nagel, the editor of Caracas Chronicles, and author of Blogging the Revolution.

“As the international community tries to separate truth from fiction and play a constructive role in trying to foster dialogue, they would be well served in keeping their expectations low,” he notes. RTWT

Maduro could have used his recent New York Times op-ed to apologize for the murders of demonstrators and bystanders by the Venezuelan armed forces or by the “colectivos,” the illegal, armed groups that are funded and encouraged by his government, says Reynaldo Trombetta, the leader of the campaign:

He also could have apologized for the dozens of protesters who were shot and the hundreds more who were assaulted or tortured. Instead, he chose to launch fresh rhetorical attacks on his countrymen despite their legitimate protests against the terrible economic conditions in their country. It is indisputable that the forces under Mr. Maduro’s control are responsible for human rights violations. So his call for peace is nothing more than an embarrassing exercise in cynicism and manipulation.

Zimbabwe’s International Re-engagement: Long Haul to Recovery

A landslide victory by the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF) in Zimbabwe’s elections in 2013 resulted in its comprehensive recapture of the state. The endorsement of the results by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the African Union (AU) and the UN confirmed ZANU-PF’s grip on power. It also symbolized Zimbabwe’s re-admittance into the international community, although the United Kingdom, European Union, United States, Australia and others expressed deep concerns about the credibility of the polls.

In anew report from Chatham House, the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, analysts Knox Chitiyo and Steve Kibble assess the principal economic and political challenges and opportunities facing Zimbabwe, and offers recommendations to help normalize the country’s relations with the West. Sustainably improved relations will depend on the new government’s track record on good governance and human rights but the report recognizes that, although the electoral legitimacy debate will continue to divide Zimbabweans, the reality is that ZANU-PF, which was the senior partner in the GNU, is the dominant force in politics and – despite its internal frictions – will remain so for some time to come. The opposition, civil society, business sector and other voices are important, but engagement with the Zimbabwe government is pivotal. Such engagement should be cautious, thoughtful and not uncritical.

At the same time, ZANU-PF needs to learn from its past mistakes and to acknowledge that Zimbabwe’s future will be increasingly determined by its own tactical decisions. With the suspension of most sanctions and associated measures, anti-Western rhetoric will harm re-engagement efforts. Just as the EU has reached out to improve relations by suspending most of its sanctions, Zimbabwe should reciprocate, demonstrating that it is serious about reengagement including through domestic governance and economic reforms and pro-poor policies.  

All of Zimbabwe’s major political parties have repeatedly demonstrated undemocratic behaviour in by-elections, primary elections and national elections. The real challenge for Zimbabwean politics is not simply electoral democracy: it is to create a genuinely inclusive participatory democracy. Failure to do this will result in an increasingly apathetic public withdrawing from electoral processes which they see as irrelevant.


Opposition and civil society

  1. The post-GNU political landscape has changed, and Zimbabwe’s opposition and civil society will have to undergo a period of reform and renewal to remain effective influences. The opposition and the government should work towards consensual or bipartisan politics, particularly in responding to the various economic challenges the country faces. The government on its own cannot reinvigorate the economy. This will require a truly national effort that – even if only temporarily – brings together political, economic and social stakeholders in a collective effort to address the economic crisis. Otherwise, all parties will lose credibility.

Electoral reform

  1. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission should ensure there is a credible and transparent electoral roll as recommended by SADC, the AU and other local and foreign bodies (including the commission itself) during the 2013 election. These issues should be addressed ahead of the next general elections, scheduled for 2018.

Good governance and human rights

  1. There needs to be a wider debate on questions of citizenship, identity and the role of civil society, as well as the role and effectiveness of the various commissions established under the new constitution.
  2. Combating poverty, especially among women, and encouraging education for girls should become a national priority.
  3. Zimbabwe’s parliamentary committees are important forums for oversight and accountability. The government needs to provide adequate funding to ensure the Civil Service Commission, the Defence Forces Commission, the Prisons and Correctional Service Commission and the Judicial Service Commission can fulfil their mandates, including by holding government agencies to account.
  4. Corruption remains a major economic challenge and a major disincentive to local and foreign institutional investment. The currently moribund Anti-corruption Commission needs to be reactivated and given a proper mandate, independence and powers to investigate, report on and end the culture of financial impunity. This in turn requires political will and support at the highest level.


International engagement

  1. With the economic stakes so high, and with growing economic interdependence, constructive engagement between Zimbabwe and the West should entail a process to end all sanctions and targeted measures, as well as a pragmatic dialogue that recognizes mutual interests and responsibilities. The process of suspending sanctions is well under way, with only those on President Mugabe and his wife, and on imports and exports of defence equipment, remaining in place. Provided there is no deterioration in the governance and human rights situation, the EU should let the suspended appropriate measures under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement fully expire on 1 November 2014. This should be followed in February 2015 by further suspension or even the lifting of all non-defence-related EU sanctions if there has been no serious deterioration in the governance and human rights situation.
  2. Western policy should move away from singling out Zimbabwe and become more regionally focused, consistently supporting sustainable economic growth and transformation, grounded in good governance and human rights.
  3. Zimbabwe’s government should seek to re-engage in international diplomatic and business forums, including seeking to rejoin the Commonwealth.
  4. Although Zimbabwe’s ‘Look East’ policy and south-south partnerships will continue apace, the government should also set out in detail how it plans to re-engage the West. The Foreign Ministry’s 2013–15 Strategic Plan could be supplemented by a White Paper outlining the changing context of regional, continental and global relations.
  5. The UK and Zimbabwe governments should establish a Zimbabwe–United Kingdom Bilateral Forum to discuss matters of mutual concern.

Download paper here

Download executive summary here

Ukraine slams Russian attempt to ‘tear country apart’


Several hundred pro-Russian demonstrators who have seized government buildings in the city of Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, urged President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday to send troops to the region as a peacekeeping force, and they demanded a referendum on seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia, The New York Times reports:

The renewed unrest in eastern Ukraine, which flared on Sunday with coordinated demonstrations by thousands of pro-Russian protesters in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Luhansk, reignited fears in Kiev and the West about Russian military action

Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said he believed the protests represented “the second wave of Russia’s special operation against Ukraine, aimed at destabilization, toppling the current government, thwarting elections and tearing the country apart.”

“The enemies of Ukraine are trying to play the Crimean scenario, but we will not allow this,” Turchynov said….The FT reports

….warning that an operation had been launched to arrest perpetrators and the military presence along Ukraine’s borders had been beefed up. Mr Turchynov, also speaker of Ukraine’s parliament, said draft legislation banning parties that back separatism had been submitted for consideration.

“This is not politics. This is a serious crime. We will act swiftly against criminals,” he said.

There is evidence that pro-Russia demonstrators in Ukraine’s east are getting support from Russians inside Ukraine, USA Today reports:

Ukrainian authorities say Russia is working behind the scenes to inflame separatist tension and destabilize eastern Ukraine, where half of the population is Russian-speaking, to create a pretext for sending in Russia troops as was done in Crimea.

“They don’t make up a big share of the demonstrators, but there are up to a thousand Russian volunteers in Ukraine,” said analyst Sergei Markov, a backer of the Russian government who has advised the Kremlin on Ukraine.

Asked if those volunteers would be willing to take up arms if a conflict broke out, Markov said “of course.”

Defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer of the Novaya Gazeta newspaper said there could be a full-fledged Russian military incursion into the three eastern Ukrainian cities, VOA’s Michael Eckels reports:

“The real factor is the battle readiness of the troops that are designated there. And battle readiness seems to be right now at its highest,” he said.

However, that battle readiness can’t be sustained indefinitely, Felgenhauer said, meaning that Russia has a window of opportunity to invade eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian parliament will push through anti-separatist legislation.

“So it’s either now or never. Not maybe never, but at least the same level of battle readiness we have right now will be maybe again reached somewhere in August.”….

Mark Galeotti, a security expert and professor at New York University, said it is within Ukraine’s abilities to use force to remove the pro-Russia activists from the buildings they have seized.

“Kyiv needs to show that it has strength and determination. If it doesn’t, it will embolden the protesters all the more,” said Galeotti.

Only 14 percent of Ukrainians support federalization, according to a poll released Saturday by the International Republican Institute. Federalization was more popular in the south, 22 percent, and the east, 26 percent, The Washington Post’s Kathy Lally reports.

The poll, which included Crimea, was carried out from March 14 to 26 as Crimea was being annexed by Russia. The results contradict the assertions Russia has made to justify its annexation of Crimea and its threats to intervene in eastern Ukraine, instead finding widespread opposition to Russian incursion and a growing preference for ties to Europe rather than Russia….

Russia has described what it calls “atrocities” against Russian-speakers, issuing warnings that suggest it is building a case to send troops into eastern Ukraine as it did in Crimea. The IRI poll released Saturday, however, found Ukraine’s Russian-speakers did not feel under threat. Even in the Russian-speaking east and south, including Crimea, 74 percent said they felt no threat.

“The issue of federalization is absolutely artificial,” said Yuriy Yakymenko, a political expert at the Razumkov think tank in Kiev. “It’s part of Russia’s plan to impose control over Ukraine and prevent it from integrating with Europe.”

IRI is one of the National Endowment for Democracy’s core institutes.