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Islam Still a Force in Indonesian Elections

With the Indonesian presidential elections looming, some political analysts are wondering what role Muslim organizations will play. In parliamentary elections earlier this year the Islamic parties lost a number of seats. Still, in the country with the world's largest Muslim population, all the major presidential candidates are courting the Muslim vote.

A campaign rally in Jakarta for the Democratic Party of Struggle, Indonesia's main opposition party, begins with a Muslim pray.

But the rock band that follows is what gets the thousands of supporters of former Indonesia President Megawati Sukarnoputri excited.

While these supporters of Ms. Megawati are overwhelmingly Muslim, they are voting for a secular party in this upcoming election.

Although Indonesia is 80 percent Muslim and has the largest Muslim population in the world, the Islamic parties here all lost ground in April's parliamentary elections. The parties that gathered enough votes to compete for the presidency are all secular; the Democratic Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the Golkar Party of Vice President Jusuf Kalla, and Ms. Megawati's Democratic Party for Struggle.

These supporters of Ms. Megawati say the secular parties also represent Islamic values.

One supporter says all the parties are represented by good Muslims.

Another says in this party there are many Muslims and there is no dominance from the non-Muslims.

While the secular party candidates try to position themselves as good Muslims, they are stressing governance issues in this campaign. Mohammad Anwar with the International Center for Islam and Pluralism says the Islamic parties lost because they stressed Islamic values over good governance.

"And people, it seems to me that they are much more conscious with the issues such as how to solve economic problems, how to solve lack of law enforcement, how to create good governance, etc.," he said.

Anwar say the series of terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists that began with the Bali bombing in 2002, did not reflect a growing radical Islamic movement is Indonesia. He says prosecution of those responsible for terrorist acts and increased security measures have restored Indonesia's image of political moderation.

But political moderation should not be seen as a rejection of Islam. After a prayer service at the Sunda Kelapa mosque in Jakarta, Muslim voters say Islamic values are still a very important election issue.

A man says if the candidate is a good Muslim, he will be a good leader.

Another says if somebody is Muslim he should vote for a Muslim candidate.

Sunny Tanuwidjaj with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the secular parities have shrewdly embraced some Islamic issues.

"They are moving to the right of the spectrum of ideology trying to court the voters of Islamic parties, challenging the base of the traditional Islamic parties," said Sunny Tanuwidjaj.

He says while Islamic parties have lost this election year, they will still be a powerful force in Indonesian politics and formidable opponents in future elections.