Almost 90% of Indonesians identify as Muslim, with millions not only practicing Islam in their personal lives but joining Muslim mass organisations as well. 'Aspirational pietism' is a growth industry in Indonesia, producing a boom in Muslim fashion, banking and media.

But when it comes to voting, the support for Islam-based parties is surprisingly low.

Candidates from parties that are Islamist in policy or identity do not feature among the frontrunners for president, with Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo from the secular Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) well in front in most polls, followed by candidates from secular parties such as Gerindra, Golkar and the Democratic Party. However, the absence of Islam-based parties among the top contenders does not mean Islam is absent entirely from Indonesian politics.

In his first week as an official presidential candidate, Jokowi paid his respects to Indonesia's two biggest Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah. NU, with an estimated membership of around 40 million, is a traditionalist group known to incorporate syncretic Javanese beliefs of the type Jokowi is rumoured to hold. Muhammadiyah, which claims around 30 million members, is a modernist group that discourages syncretism and promotes a more conservative interpretation of Islamic texts.

Neither group has its own political party, though the interests of both are represented by certain parties. Muhammadiyah's interests are represented by the National Mandate Party (PAN), established by former Muhammadiyah chairman Amien Rais.  NU finds its voice in the National Awakening Party (PKB), which counts among its founders former NU chairman and president of Indonesia Abdurrahman Wahid. The United Development Party (PPP), a forced coalition of four Islam-based parties under Suharto's New Order, recruits both NU and Muhammadiyah members, as does the reform-era Prosperous Justice Party (PKS).

Even with connections to mass organisations like NU and Muhammadiyah, these parties struggle to reach the top rungs of politics without entering into coalitions with secular parties.

In Indonesia, so-called secular parties adhere to Pancasila, the national ideology, which places as its first principle the belief in God. In this respect, the ideological basis of secular parties is not so different to that of pluralist ones like PAN and PKB, despite their Islamic identity. Even the secular PDI-P has a religious wing called Baitul Muslimin Indonesia, established by chairwoman Megawati Sukarnoputri in 2007 to attract Muslim voters.

Islamist parties such as the PPP and PKS are different in that they identify Islam as an ideological foundation, something that was banned under the New Order. However, their looser ties with NU and Muhammadiyah make for a fragmented support base. PKS made gains in the 2004 and 2009 elections by capitalising on its religious image as a 'clean and caring' party, but has since largely lost this image through the 'beef-gate' scandal involving former party chairman Luthfi Hasan Ishaaq, and the multiple public gaffes of current chairman Tifatul Sembiring, who has found a disdaining audience online.

Lost claims to moral superiority and a lack of ideological difference to secular parties has made it difficult for Islam-oriented parties to compete in Indonesian politics. Another lost selling point has come with the improved provision of social welfare by secular parties, undercutting the services provided in health and education by NU and Muhammadiyah. Though still far from perfect, government welfare services are improving and in some cases now cater better to poorer voters than those provided by the two big Muslim organisations.

With all three factors thrown into question, Islam-based parties have lost their major platforms for public support. Meanwhile, secular parties are free to court all religious groups and make promises on social welfare from a non-Islamic, but still religious, ideological background.

As Jokowi's visits to Muhammadiyah and NU show, in Indonesia's elections this year it will be Islamic pietism, not parties, that will pull in the votes.

Photo by Flickr user Iyyaka Nastain.