Before last week's legislative elections in Indonesia, most observers (myself included) were convinced that Islamic parties would continue their decline in the polls, dragged down by a lack of ideological distinction from secular nationalist parties, competition from the state in the provision of social welfare, and lost claims to moral superiority in the wake of damaging corruption and sex scandals. I argued that Islamic pietism would play a role in gaining voter support but that this was open to all parties, and would not guarantee success for Islamic parties over secular nationalist ones.

This assessment turned out to be about half right.

As predicted, secular nationalist parties were the clear winners in the poll, according to quick counts released last week (official results will not be available until early May), with a collective score of about 68%. However, Islamic parties actually saw a rise in support compared to previous legislative elections, taking a collective 32% of the vote compared to 29% in 2009. All Islamic parties took a bigger share of the vote than in the previous election, with the exception of the scandal-ridden Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), which was punished with only a 1% decline in voter support.

Rumours are now flying about plans for the Islamic parties to form a coalition and put forward a presidential candidate, though commentators have dismissed this as unlikely, if not impossible.

Journalists and analysts in Jakarta have been scratching their heads over the result, which put the Islamic National Awakening Party (PKB) in the top five, just below President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democratic Party. Some have pointed to corruption among secular nationalist parties as a reason voters looked to Islamic parties, deemed to be more morally sound. But this does not explain why parties such as the PKS were not punished more harshly.

Others saw the results as a victory for moderate Islam, with the PKB and National Mandate Party (PAN), neither of which hold an Islamist political ideology, topping the Islamic vote.

Indonesia specialist Greg Fealy, after being interviewed by just about every media outlet in Jakarta on the matter, expanded on his analysis on an Australian National University blog, arguing that the success of Islamic parties did not signal growing support for political Islam, but instead was due to pragmatic policy and campaigning decisions made by individual parties, mostly involving a step away from Islamist ideology and toward centrist policies with broad appeal.

The best-performing Islamic party, PKB, secured broad appeal by recruiting 1970s pop singer Rhoma Irama, sometimes referred to as 'Indonesia's Elvis', as a presidential hopeful. It also had the support of Lion Air founder Rusdi Kirana, with whose help PKB launched a well-oiled campaign at the grassroots, something Joko Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) is criticised as having failed to achieve ahead of the legislative election. Perhaps most importantly, PKB improved relations with Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia's biggest Islamic organisation, since the last poll in 2009. The support of NU is important for PKB not only because of its significance in religious life but also for its role in the community as a provider of social welfare.

PAN, which came in just below PKB, also has strong ties at the grassroots via Muhammadiyah, Indonesia's second biggest Islamic organisation. Like NU, Muhammadiyah is known as a provider of social welfare, particularly in health and education. And like PKB, PAN also invested heavily in campaigning to make its name known at the grassroots. It would appear that this combination of organisational links, provision of social welfare and investment in advertising paid off for both PAN and PKB.  Another common factor is that neither party holds an explicitly Islamist political ideology. Both are only Islamic in identity and via their connections to Islamic organisations.

Meanwhile, parties that do have an Islamist agenda, such as the PKS and the United Development Party (PPP), came in at the bottom of the scale, with the sharia-promoting Crescent Star Party (PBB) falling short of the parliamentary threshold. This would suggest that political Islam is still struggling to find support in Indonesia, though parties that are culturally Islamic can garner a broad support base, especially when they offer social services that benefit the community. A little star power and generous funding don't hurt either.

Photo by Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.