Elections and Islamism in Southeast Asia

Here are two interesting graphics that I’ve made while preparing for a presentation on Islam and elections in Southeast Asia. For both Indonesia and Malaysia, I have taken the results from the first parliamentary election after independence and the most recent parliamentary election, and compared the results for self-identified Islamic parties (green) versus other parties (red in Indonesia, blue in Malaysia). Pie charts are usually bad, but in this case they highlight the qualitative comparisons nicely.

First, the Indonesia results.
indonesia votes
The continuity between the 1955 and 1999 elections has been widely noted, but these results show that 10 years of democracy hasn’t changed much either.

Now, the Malaysia results.
malaysia votes
To my knowledge, this is the first time that the parallels between 1959 and 2013 have been highlighted this way, and also the first time that that continuity has been explicitly compared to Indonesia.

What’s the point I hope to make? Simply this: the popular conversation about Islam in Southeast Asia holds that Islamism is “on the rise.” These figures complicate that simple conclusion: they highlight that electorally, explicitly Islamist parties are not gaining ground—if anything, they are losing ground. If we are to argue that Islamism is on the rise, we must find a way to explain this. I have some ideas about how we might do that, but suffice it to say these ideas consider the rise of Islamism as a complex phenomenon which is interrelated with a lot of other concomitant social, economic, and political transformations.

This post also stems from a conversation I had while at a workshop at the American Center for Oriental Research last week. An audience member approached me after my presentation comparing Indonesia to Egypt and Tunisia, and insisted that Indonesia has a lot more Muslims than it used to. The exact quote: “87% Muslim? I don’t think so. Unless something has changed recently.”

Posted in Indonesia, Malaysia, Politics, Research
7 comments on “Elections and Islamism in Southeast Asia
  1. Si Ning says:

    That’s a pretty interesting graph, especially in light of how it feels like so much more media attention has been paid lately to issues like the Alvivi case, the outcry over Buddhists using that Johor surau for prayers, the fatwas against Muslims participating in beauty contests, the furor about the dog trainer washing her dogs, the children eating in the restrooms during Ramadan kerfuffle and I don’t even know what else. But when we actually bother to think about it – thanks to your post! – it is surprising to realize that PAS doesn’t seem to play a major role in any of these issues; instead, it’s mostly the main government who has been pinpointed (scapegoated?) as the source for the rise in religious hullabaloo. Personally, I wonder how much UMNO is actually in control of this, as half the time the outrage seems to first come from the populace, and then only does the government react in response to said outrage. And with that, is it still considered a rise in political Islam if political parties aren’t in control of the phenomenon?

    • tompepinsky says:

      Si Ning, I think that is exactly right. To the extent that Islamism is on the rise, it’s not something that’s happening through Islamists winning elections! Same story in Indonesia, I think.

  2. Kevin Fogg says:

    Good job demonstrating this visually, Tom, but I’m not sure that these quantitative comparisons capture the biggest shift. I think the biggest shift has been how many of the policies that were advocated by all the Islamic parties on your list in Indonesia in 1955 would now be seen as radical by Indonesia’s Islamic parties. All the Islamic parties in 1955 campaigned on changing the constitution to insert Islam in major ways, all advocated a “Negara Islam”, Perti even planned for an ulama council with veto power over any legislation (along the lines of Iran today). I do not think that PPP, PKS and others, although they may have held positions closer to that in 1999, have these points in their platform today, and I think they would in fact run from such ideas. This shift in what makes an “Islamic” party is the major difference over the past 50-60 years, not the percentage of votes that these parties win.

    • tompepinsky says:

      I think that’s exactly right, Kevin. That’s what my presentation will need to convey: parties that are “Islamist” do different things than they used to. But what your comment confirms to me, at least, is that the notion of Islamism being on the rise is just not correct. Or at least we should say, it’s more complicated.

  3. […] post on Islamism and Elections in Southeast Asia got some nice feedback, and I’m convinced that the simple graphics helped. I was surprised, […]

  4. I love, Tom, that you are opening up a space for these sorts of conversations online. I also like the temporal and cross national comparison. Building on Kevin’s point, however, I wonder whether the quantitative comparison accounts for change within the parties. Kevin makes this point in regard to Islamists. But I suggest that the evolution of the red and blue parties is equally obscured by the charts. What does the red and blue designate? If it denotes a “secular party” then we need to supplement the chart with a conversation about how parties that endorse Pancasila are not secular in the sense that the term is used by Philpott, Berger, Hurd, i.e. theorists of secularization. And we need to discuss how the truncated pluralism of the Pancasila has grown more rigid. And why “secular” parties have supported Islamist legislation, and the 1965 law against blasphemy, and the bans on Ahmadiyah.

    Which leads me to a second point; Mahmood, Kurzman, Asad, Hefner, Hoesterey and Rinaldo suggest that the transformative effect of the Islamic revival in SEA and the Mideast is most palpable in civil society, religious organizations, and the marketplace, not in elections. The electoral success of the MB and AKP are exceptions to the rule, not the rule. Political scientist’s privileging of formal political institutions over social institutions obscures that influence. Which is why a chart evaluating the rise of Islamism using electoral outcomes tells very partial story. It may even obscure more than it reveals.

    • tompepinsky says:

      Setuju, Jeremy! I agree with everything you’ve written. And I think that this is the true significance of Islamism as a political force in SEA. I am going to have to post all of my slides online. I’m trying to distinguish between the notion of Islam as a “surface” phenomenon and Islam as part of the “deep structure” of politics and society.

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