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Can Indonesia's main Islamist party recover from scandal?

Indonesia's main Islamist political party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), has been hit by a major crisis following the arrest of its top leader on corruption charges. Judging by the loud jeers that have greeted news of the scandal, the party now faces an uphill battle to recover public face in time for the general elections next year.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) has accused PKS President Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq (pictured above being taken in for questioning) of using his influence to secure a lucrative government contract on the import of Australian beef for a private company.

In a sting operation, KPK officers arrested Luthfi's aide, finding on him Rp 1 billion (approximately $100,000) in cash which he had just received from executives of the private contractor. Although Luthfi was not directly involved in the transaction, KPK officials say the money was intended for him.  Further damaging the reputation of the Islamist party was the fact that Luthfi's aide was arrested in a luxury hotel room -- with a call girl.

The PKS, which shares the same ideology as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, was founded when Indonesia became a multi-party democracy after the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. Campaigning on moral grounds and projecting itself as a clean party leading the fight against corruption, it soon won widespread support among the country's Islamist constituents and emerged as Indonesia's largest Islamist party. In 2009, the PKS won just over 7.5 percent of the total votes and is one of the six parties that formed the coalition government under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Given the morality-based message of its political platform, voters judge the PKS by higher standards compared to other parties. And yet the party has survived a number of corruption and sex scandals in the past. There was even the embarrassing moment when a PKS member of the House of Representatives was caught on camera watching a porn video on his IPad during a House plenary session. 

With each scandal, however, the PKS is gradually losing its Islamic and moral credentials in the eyes of voters. This latest one, which involves the party's president, is probably the most damaging to its ambitions of breaking into the top three parties in 2014.

To their credit, the party leaders have moved quickly to control the damage, knowing that time is not on their side. Luthfi -- who has maintained his innocence -- resigned from the leadership post in order to focus on the legal battle. His place has been filled by Anis Matta, formerly the party's secretary general. 

In his first message as president on Friday, Anis called for "national atonement" to clean up the party's act. He also warned members that there are hidden powerful forces working to destroy the party. He did not give any specifics.

The PKS is not the only party that had been hurt by corruption scandals. All the other big parties, including members in the coalition government, have had to deal with the KPK at one time or another.

But voters are likely to be more forgiving towards parties that do not preach morality. The moral message that the PKS expounds is not only ringing hollow, but also smacks of hypocrisy as more and more of its leaders and members are caught violating what they preach.

All the political parties in Indonesia face the same pressures to raise money to finance their operations. Most have had to rely on the resourcefulness of their leaders, and along the way some of them may have used their influence to secure lucrative contracts. The KPK has clamped down on this activity, sending many politicians to jail on charges of corruption. Luthfi could be next.

At least the PKS has moved quickly, even dismissing its chairman without waiting for the court verdict.

In contrast, President Yudhoyono's Democratic Party has tried to fend off the charges of corruption leveled against many of its top people, and not very successfully at that. After months of evading the charges, Youth and Sports Minister Y Andi Alfian Mallarangeng was forced to resign from cabinet when the KPK named him a suspect in a corruption scandal regarding the construction of a major sports center near Jakarta. The party's chairman, Anas Urbaningrum, has managed to evade similar charges so far, although his name repeatedly came up in court testimony that suggested he knew much more about the scheme than he cared to admit.

The Democratic Party's public standing has declined as these investigations and court hearing involving its members drag on. Various opinion polls indicate that the party, which won the largest share of the vote in 2009, will be lucky to make it to the top three in 2014.

It remains unclear whether the PKS has done enough to contain the fallout from the latest corruption charges against its former president. The case may be expanded to include other PKS members.

Minister of Agriculture Suswono, also a senior PKS figure, is responsible for allocating beef import licenses. His decision to limit imports of Australian beef last year on the pretext of protecting local cattle farmers was chiefly responsible for the soaring domestic beef prices that irked Indonesian housewives. In light of this week's arrest of the party's president, suggestions that the PKS has profited from the beef quota system will certainly not go down well, not only among PKS supporters, but also among the burgeoning Indonesian consumers.

The party may face its harshest punishment at the ballot box in 2014.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

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Worrying about Burma

In my last blog post I wrote about my experience of returning to Burma (with my wife and newborn daughter) after many years away. That piece has elicited a lot of responses, mostly positive. This one might be a bit different in that respect.

As I wrote, during our stay in Burma we paid a visit with our relatives to the ancient city of Pagan (pronounced bah-gan), the capital of the first Burman Empire founded in the eleventh century by King Anawrahta. Theravada Buddhism took root in central Burma for the first time during the Pagan era and has thrived in the country ever since. Modern-day Burma is still very much under the spell of Pagan -- both in terms of political culture and religious practice.

Pagan, perhaps because of its many outsized personalities, established ideal models for leaders that still influence political life today. I was struck by how many people I spoke with still seem to expect the solutions to our political problems to come from great heroes (whether it's current president Thein Sein or an opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi) rather than institutions. Our leaders tend to prefer one-man (or one-woman) shows instead of people who develop the necessary political institutions (such as fully developed political parties). Ironically, of late I've found Thein Sein, an ex-general-turned-president and my former political adversary, to be more savvy in this respect. At least he's been trying to get help from technocrats. Aung San Suu Kyi, by contrast, seems to prefer the company of sycophantic gatekeepers and business cronies from the old regime. Lately the Lady appears to be increasingly arrogant and out of touch. Almost all of the intellectuals and dissidents I spoke with -- people who once went to jail with her name on their lips and were ready to die for the cause she represented -- spoke of their growing disappointment with her, while at the same time expressing frustration with the lack of viable alternatives in the opposition movement. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens are still putting all their hopes on the heroes. Burmese people still seem to look for "the good king" or the "pretender to the throne" as the panacea for all of the country's chronic ills. This does not bode well for the future of democracy, I suspect.

Another thing that struck me was the over-ritualization of Buddhism. Every morning, the first things you hear when you open your eyes are the chanting or the pleas for alms or the announcements about religious events that are broadcast over crackly loudspeakers from neighborhood groups or passing trucks. Anywhere you go in Rangoon, you're constantly bombarded by these amplified requests for donations, usually involving the renovation of this holy site or that monastery. Donations have become big business, contracted out to companies or beggars by temples and even specific monks. I guess this makes sense if it brings in the funds that they need. But it doesn't strike me as especially transparent.

The Buddha urged his followers to give without any expectation of personal reward. Generosity (dana) is supposed to help you move from a self-centered, greed-driven existence to one that is other-centered and greed-free. Evidence of the importance of charity in Burmese culture is abundant, from the golden glory of the Shwedagon Pagoda (which owes its magnificence to donations from countless devotees) to the familiar sight of mendicant monks receiving alms. Nor is charity reserved for those who choose the religious life. Rest houses are set up all over the country for the comfort of travelers, and vessels of pure, cool water can be found on every roadside, put there for the benefit of passersby. These distinctive clay water pots are replenished daily, often by local people who have little else to offer but who aim to contribute something to the well-being of others.

In today's Burma however, this rosy image of traditional generosity no longer holds. In many places, charity has become a self-serving tool to acquire wealth and power. Even among religious people, it amounts to little more than a money transfer to the next life. I often heard the loudspeaker broadcasts pushing the message that it is the lack of generosity, and not poverty as such, that is the reason for the destitution. "If you say you can't make donations because you lack wealth, you can never expect to become wealthy," I heard at one point. (In fact, this is a well-known motif of official religious propaganda. During the era of the old military junta, this message was published regularly in the state-run media.) This Catch-22 may be cold comfort for the poor, but for the rulers it makes perfectly good sense. Why blame decades of mismanagement for the country's many economic woes? Isn't poverty just the product of parsimony? That, at least, is what the reigning establishment would like people to believe.

In Burma, no political practice is possible without involving Buddhism -- and Buddhism has been politicized to such a degree that no religious act is apolitical. The military junta that ruled Burma for so long used religion to enhance their political legitimacy by patronizing the Sangha (the council of monks who preside over the Buddhist religious establishment). Successive rulers have exploited the Sangha's historically important role as a unifying factor for state control.

The successive civilian as well as military regimes actively organized large-scale ritual events in which they have mobilized the Buddhist population to take part, such as national veneration of the Buddha's sacred tooth relic in 1994, and an umbrella-hoisting ceremony in 1999. In short, the whole country has been transformed into a ritual community, one designed to prevent the emergence of an authentic political and civic community. Worst of all, these ritualized practices are not helping to improve people's everyday morals. There can be little doubt that today's moral climate is dire -- ranging from corruption to substance abuse to status-driven bullying and violence. These are obviously not the values the Buddha aimed to foster.

As a devotee of Buddhism, I have found the Buddha's teaching (especially the Theravada Buddhism professed by the majority of Burmese) as guidance that enables each of us to improve ourselves and attain benefits on an individual basis. The Buddha did approve of certain collective practices, but in the end liberation can only be achieved individually. No one -- not even the Buddha -- can save you but yourself. At the same time, I'm deeply grateful to some Buddhist abbots and lay devotees not only for their spiritual guidance but also for their great works of charity for the poor and the victims of natural disasters. It seems to me that the ritualized Buddhism screaming out those loudspeakers strikes has little in common with that genuine spirit of care for others.

My return to Burma was uplifting. My reunion with my family and friends filled me with joy. It was great to be home again. At the same time, I felt quite alienated by these two visible flaws in the public life of the country: personalized politics and ritualized religion. Go ahead and blame me for it. I don't mind.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images