September 19, 2023
JAKARTA – The Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) establishment has reaffirmed its support for President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ahead of the 2024 presidential election, saying that the Islamic organization would “never be too far away” from the nationalist leader.
NU chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf expressed the group’s support for the incumbent president as he opened NU’s Big Congress and Scholar National Conference (Musyawarah Nasional Alim Ulama dan Konferensi Besar) in Jakarta on Monday. The event was attended by the President and some of his ministers, including Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto and State-owned Enterprises (SOEs) Minister Erick Thohir.
“Mr. President is never too far from the NU central board [PBNU] and has stayed with the NU up to this point. InsyaAllah [God willing], the NU will never be too far away from Jokowi as well,” Yahya said during his speech.
In his speech, Yahya also thanked Jokowi for his contribution to the establishment of a new nine-story building in Nahdatul Ulama University (UNU) in Yogyakarta and for facilitating a cooperation with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government to create a new study program at the university.
Jokowi meanwhile urged the NU to consolidate its members and improve their skills in various aspects, including in social, religious, humanitarian, technology and business subjects. “NU power is extraordinary. It has so many members, all across the nation, even overseas. We need to consolidate this big power,” he said.
Yahya’s reiteration of the NU’s support for Jokowi has sparked speculation that the NU establishment is supporting the presidential candidate endorsed by the President, who has sought to influence the hunt for his successor. Yahya has played down the speculation, saying that, “the NU as an institution is not taking part in [the election].”
Factionalism within NU
That said, Yahya’s statement may reflect the factionalism within the Islamic organization after the NasDem Party and the National Awakening Party (PKB) agreed to pair former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan and PKB leader Muhaimin Iskandar. The PKB, which was cofounded by the charismatic NU cleric and former president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid, has long been associated with the NU and is even considered its main political arm.
NU elites are currently divided into three major camps: the Muhaimin/PKB faction, the Yahya camp (also known as the Rembang faction) and the Gus Dur loyalists. The NU’s executive board (PBNU), now led by Yahya, has sought to distance itself from Muhaimin, who claimed to have secured the blessings of the NU clerics. Yahya was quick to denounce any attempts by politicians to make the claim that they were “NU candidates”.
Furthermore, the PBNU’s support for Jokowi has created the impression that it is supporting candidates associated with Jokowi, Prabowo or Ganjar Pranowo, in order to subvert Muhaimin’s attempt to garner the NU vote during the election.
The rivalry between Muhaimin’s group and the Yahya camp started after the 2021 PBNU national congress, at which Yahya was elected chairman, defeating two-term incumbent Said Aqil Siroj, who is known to be very close to Muhaimin.
Muhaimin is also facing resistance from Gus Dur loyalists who consider him as a “traitor” following a dispute between him and the former NU leader over the PKB leadership.
Gus Dur’s daughters Allisa Wahid and Yenny Wahid have openly criticized Muhaimin following his pairing with Anies. Allisa has accused Muhaimin of spreading false information and demanded that he stop using Gus Dur’s name in any way for his own political gain. Meanwhile, Yenny has also repeatedly questioned Muhaimin’s loyalty, decency and moral character.
Although the NU has made it an official policy that the group will not engage in practical politics, in practice the NU has long been a major force in Indonesian politics. In the last few years, the NU has positioned itself as one of the major supporters of the Jokowi administration, with one of its leaders, Ma’ruf Amin, now serving as vice president.
Ma’ruf, along with his NU followers, was credited with helping Jokowi win the highly polarized 2019 election. Jokowi had no choice but to align himself with the former chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), whose statements were critical in the electoral defeat and the subsequent blasphemy conviction of former Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, a key Jokowi ally in the capital.
So powerful is the group that the President had to correct his decision to appoint a former general as religious affairs minister, a post traditionally reserved for NU figures, after facing a backlash from the NU establishment. The post is now held by Yaqut Cholil Qoumas, the leader of NU’s youth wing, the Anshor Youth Movement, who is also Yahya’s brother.
The NU is seen as a key electoral tool, primarily because it is an influential group for voters in East Java where none of the presumptive presidential contenders have a strong foothold. Winning votes in East Java will be a deciding factor in the upcoming presidential election and NU figures are seen as the ultimate vote-getters.
Following Anies, both Prabowo and Ganjar Pranowo, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) presidential nominee, have considered several NU figures such as Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD, East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa and Gus Dur’s daughter Yenny as potential running mates. Ganjar has also met with the mother of Yahya and Yaqut as part of his political tour.
Analysts have predicted that the upcoming elections could be a competition of vice presidential candidates with NU backgrounds. (ahw)