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The Star Online: Metro: South & East

Indonesian Islamic parties head for poll drubbing

Posted: 30 Mar 2014 04:08 AM PDT

Jakarta (AFP) - Nisa Ariyani staunchly supported Indonesia's Muslim parties her whole life, throughout decades of authoritarian rule and at the three legislative elections after the country became democratic.

But when tens of millions vote in parliamentary polls in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country on April 9, the 42-year-old teacher is set to join a growing number who will not cast their ballot for an Islamic party.

Indonesia's five main Muslim parties are heading for their worst ever showing at the elections, hit by explosive scandals and a growing trend among voters not to pick parties purely on religious grounds.

"I have lost my faith in Islamic parties, and I will vote for nobody," said Ariyani, who lives in the capital Jakarta and has worn a headscarf all her life, even during the long rule of dictator Suharto when it was uncommon in Indonesia.

Her change of heart is due to a specific case -- a sordid scandal involving clandestine hotel room sex and huge kickbacks that rocked the party she had supported at previous elections, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

Before supporting the PKS, Indonesia's biggest Islamic party, she backed the United Development Party, one of the few opposition groups allowed by Suharto and still around now.

- Paradoxical shift? -

The decline in support for Muslim parties -- which range from moderate groups to more extreme ones that want to introduce Islamic sharia law -- since the end of authoritarian rule in 1998 seems at first glance a paradox, analysts say.

Since the downfall of Suharto, who backed a secular state and was against the strong influence of Islam in public life, Indonesia has appeared to have become more Islamic, not less.

An increasing number of women wear the headscarf, Islam-influenced goods -- from fashion brands to apps that remind you when to pray -- are all the rage, while some people have even chosen to live in strict Islamic communities, rejecting the trappings of modern life.

The tumultuous years following the end of Suharto's regime were also accompanied by an upsurge in Islamic extremism, notably the 2002 Bali bombings, in which 202 people -- mostly foreign tourists -- were killed.

A crackdown over the past decade has weakened the most dangerous groups but Islamic extremists still regularly target domestic security forces.

Despite this, the country's five main Islamic parties -- among 12 running in the parliamentary elections -- have seen their popularity slide in the sprawling archipelago nation where more than 90 percent of the population is Muslim.

Their combined share of the vote fell to around 26 percent at the 2009 legislative polls from around 34 percent a decade earlier.

Dodi Ambardi, a director at the Indonesian Survey Institute, predicts their support will fall to only 15 percent in the coming elections, particularly due to a drop for the PKS, which won almost eight percent in 2009.

No Islamic party is expected to do well enough to put a candidate forward for the presidential polls in July. A party or coalition of parties must win 20 percent of the seats in parliament or 25 percent of the national vote at the April elections to do so.

- Savvy voters -

But growing sophistication among voters who no longer simply focus on religion is a greater factor in the parties' declining support, analysts say.

"In choosing which party they will vote for, Muslim voters no longer think of their religion but rather the party's track record and policies," Ambardi told AFP.

In this regard, Islamic parties have notably failed.

They have not developed into well-run organisations and have relied on the mistaken belief that pious Muslims would vote for them regardless, said Noorhaidi Hasan, an expert in Islam and politics.

"Islamic parties are too ideological, offering an Islamic ideology but no other action," said Hasan, from Sunan Kalijaga Islamic university in Yogyakarta, on the main island of Java.

He also said increasing signs of Islam in everyday life did not necessarily mean people were becoming more Islamic and would automatically vote for Muslim parties -- simply that they were now free to express their faith publicly and they had the financial means to do so.

"Middle-class Muslims are not expressing their religion for the sake of religion -- but for social status and lifestyle," he said.

Despite their travails, Muslim parties are still likely to attract some support and the PKS is convinced many have already forgotten last year's controversy, which saw its ex-president jailed for 16 years.

"Support for the PKS is like a pillow -- once a burden is lifted, it will return to its normal shape quickly and easily," said party spokesman Dedi Supriadi.

And Islamic parties could still remain influential by providing support to the bigger parties, observers believe.

Coalition governments are the norm under Indonesia's complex electoral system, and there are currently four Islamic parties in the six-party coalition of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. - AFP

China's Xi begins Belgium visit on last leg of Europe tour

Posted: 30 Mar 2014 04:23 AM PDT

Brussels (AFP) - Chinese leader Xi Jinping began a three-day visit to Belgium Sunday on the last leg of his European tour that will include meeting the Belgian royals and seeing giant pandas ahead of an historic EU visit, the first ever by a Chinese president.

Xi was welcomed at the airport by Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo and he is set to go to the royal palace in central Brussels to meet Belgium's King Philippe and Queen Mathilde.

The tiny country is presenting a showcase royal touch for Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan, with the power couple rolling up to the Brussels palace escorted by officers on horseback, and dining in the castle's halls on the city outskirts Monday.

King Philippe, who ascended to the throne last year, and glamorous wife Queen Mathilde will join the Chinese pair for the official opening Sunday of a special park for two giant pandas on loan from China for the next 15 years.

Xi's maiden swing through Europe as president has taken him to the Netherlands, France and Germany for bilateral talks and mega business deals, as well as to last week's Nuclear Security Summit where he met US President Barack Obama.

In a tour of many firsts, his three days in Belgium will see a Chinese president visit European Union headquarters for the first time, when he meets Monday with European Council president Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament president Martin Schulz.

Business has loomed large through the tour, and with the European bloc as China's largest trading partner -- two-way trade is at more than a billion euros a day -- economic issues are likely to dominate too at the EU, though human rights and diplomacy, in particular Ukraine, will also come up.

- Pandas divide Belgium -

The Chinese leader's trip to the park to see female Hao Hao and companion Xing Hui, who arrived in Belgium in February, is an acknowledgement of China's "panda diplomacy".

But the two furry national treasures have unwittingly opened a new rift in the longtime turmoil dividing Belgium's rival Dutch- and French-speaking communities.

The problem is that the rare bears, a reliable draw for visitors, are in a zoo in French-speaking southern Wallonia, some 60 kilometres (37 miles) from Brussels, not far from the city of Mons whose last mayor is none other than Di Rupo.

The Pairi Daiza zoo has since seen its ticket sales boom and share price soar, angering Belgium's oldest and most well-known zoo, located in the heart of the port city of Antwerp in northern Flanders.

In other bilateral encounters with Belgium's leaders, Xi will hold talks with Di Rupo and parliament leaders on Monday, and Tuesday visit the largest Chinese-owned company in Belgium, carmaker Volvo in Ghent, bought by Geely from Ford in 2010.

Belgium will be hoping for new investments.

Though it has sought to sell itself to Beijing investors as "a gateway to Europe", there has been little interest up until now though trade has grown and the balance improved in Belgium's favour due to a 65 percent hike in exports in the last five years.

On the wider European front, talks between Xi and the EU's top officials Monday are likely to take place in an easier atmosphere than expected after both sides took steps in recent days to settle trade tiffs.

The 28-member EU is China's biggest trading partner, but relations have seen periodic turmoil over trade and human rights. Trade totalled $559 billion in 2013, according to China.

Days ahead of Xi's landmark EU visit, the European Commission announced it was dropping plans to open anti-dumping and anti-subsidy inquiries into Chinese telecom firms, which though not named would have targeted Huawei and ZTE.

And the European move followed Beijing's own announcement on the eve of the president's departure to Europe that it was ending an anti-dumping inquiry into EU wine imports, the second trade dispute settled in less than a week after China said it had reached an agreement on exports of polysilicon from Europe.

Both the polysilicon and wine disputes were widely seen as resulting from a fierce 2013 battle over the dumping of Chinese solar panels on the European market.

Polysilicon is an important element in some types of solar panels, while China's announcement that it was probing if European wine was being sold below cost and enjoyed unfair subsidies came a day after the Commission said it would slap tariffs on Chinese producers of solar panels. - AFP

Tensions as Myanmar embarks on first census in 30 years

Posted: 29 Mar 2014 10:32 PM PDT

SITTWE, Myanmar: Tens of thousands of census-takers fanned out across Myanmar on Sunday to gather data for a rare snapshot of the former junta-ruled nation that is already stoking sectarian tensions.

Groups of schoolteachers and local officials began the 12-day population survey - the first since 1983 - travelling from house to house in an ambitious drive aimed at counting everyone across the poverty-stricken nation.

But the census was called into question before it even started in Rakhine state, the site of deadly religious conflict. A main point of contention is that Muslims will not be able to register as "Rohingya".

Buddhist nationalists have threatened to boycott the tally over fears it could lead to official recognition for the Rohingya, viewed by the United Nations as among the world's most persecuted minorities.

"Fill in the form that you are Rohingya," read a sign scrawled on a wall in one of the bleak displacement camps clustered on the outskirts of the Rakhine capital Sittwe.

Muslims in the camps, made homeless in two major bouts of fighting two years ago, expressed determination to defy the government edict to register as "Bengali", a term used by the authorities, who view most Rohingya as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

"We do not want any problems. I was born here and my parents were also born here. I was born a Myanmar national. For me, I will not register as 'Bengali', I will register as 'Rohingya'," Hla Myint, 58, told AFP.

Foreign aid workers fled Rakhine during the week after Buddhist mobs attacked their offices as tensions escalated in the run-up to the census. 

An 11-year-old girl was killed by a stray bullet after police fired warning shots to disperse angry crowds in the state capital Sittwe.

Humanitarian workers in the region have come under increasing pressure from Buddhist nationalists who accuse them of bias in favour of local Muslims. 

Rakhine state tense

The state remained tense on Sunday as Buddhists sought confirmation that the Rohingya term would not be allowed.

Myanmar's first census in three decades, which is backed by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), is aimed at plugging an information deficit in the former military dictatorship.

Critics, who have called for the exercise to be postponed, accuse the organisers of focusing on the technical aspects of the survey and neglecting political concerns.

They say the inclusion of ethnic and religious questions will further fan the flames of unrest and threaten fragile peace talks with minority rebel groups.

Many locals, long subject to repressive policies under authoritarian rule, have also expressed suspicion of the move to collect a wide variety of household information - including questions on movement and economic activity. 

But the survey-taking was seen to be proceeding smoothly in some areas on Sunday, with teams visiting homes in Thaketa township on the outskirts of the commercial hub Yangon.

"I have no problem. They are asking the right questions and I gave them a true answer. It's good because there will be exact information about who is who and where they live," Tin Shwe, 48, told AFP after completing the questionnaire. -AFP

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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