JAKARTA (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia, as well as the world, celebrates its 100th anniversary with several familiar faces in the government taking on high-profile roles in the group.
They include Minister of State-Owned Enterprises Erick Thohir and Deputy Minister for Maritime and Investment Affairs Jodi Mahardi.
Founded by Indonesia’s well-respected cleric Hasyim Asy’ari, NU has become a powerful political force with an estimated membership of 45 million. The organisation – or its members – could become a swing factor that may decide who would be Indonesia’s next president.
NU’s stronghold is East Java, which is home to 40 million Indonesians, making it the second-most populous province after West Java.
None of Indonesia’s top three most touted presidential hopefuls have a strong supporter base in East Java.
Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo from the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) is currently the most popular, followed by former Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan – who does not belong to any political party but has the backing of three parties – and Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto from Gerindra party.
If any of them could find a running mate who is an NU figure, the person could have a significant electoral gain in 2024.
For example, incumbent Vice-President Ma’ruf Amin, who is a senior member of NU, played an important role in courting votes in the re-election of President Joko Widodo in 2019.
Politicians and government officials who aspire to enter politics have been making moves towards NU to garner support.
Erick is among the vice-presidential hopefuls and wants to pair with Ganjar or Prabowo, both of whom are from President Widodo’s camp. Anies is considered the President’s political foe.
Erick served as head of the NU steering committee for an event in Jakarta on Tuesday (Jan 31) night to mark NU’s anniversary on Feb 7. He was recently made an honorary member of NU’s youth wing organisation Banser, while Deputy Minister Jodi is head of the international affairs department.
“He (Mr Erick) has an entrepreneur background and lacks ties to a social organisation. He clearly needs to associate himself with NU,” political analyst Djayadi Hanan told The Straits Times.
“NU has always had a huge following. About 50 per cent of adult Indonesians practise NU’s culture and way of life, while about 25 per cent are members of NU.”
In 2014, then NU general chairman Said Aqil Siradj, faced with growing criticism over NU’s links to political parties, admitted that members were split between those supporting then presidential candidate Widodo and those backing his closest rival Prabowo. However, he stressed that the organisation was greater than political parties.
Aqil Siradj later conceded that he had supported Prabowo, who lost to Widodo in the polls. His comment raised eyebrows as it was uncommon for the head of NU to endorse a presidential candidate.
Dr A’an Suryana, visiting fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, told The Straits Times that the current NU’s elites have shown much more restraint, pointing out that if there is any move by any NU executive to support a political hopeful, he will do so quietly, and the action does not represent NU as an institution.
“NU’s current leadership tends to stay out of politics. It is the opposite of the previous one which was more articulate and had no qualm engaging in practical politics,” said Dr A’an.
NU was founded in 1926 and its 100th year would fall on Feb 7, 2022, according to the Islamic lunar calendar.
The NU event on Tuesday was attended by former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, who is also chairman of the ruling PDI-P, and scores of ministers. The highlight was the presentation of high achievement awards, including posthumous awards to Mr Sukarno, the country’s first president, and Mr Abdurrahman Wahid, the fourth president.
The main event on Feb 7 will be held in Sidoarjo, East Java, said NU general chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf, adding that guests will include Islamic clerics from overseas.
What is Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)
- About 25 per cent of Indonesia’s Muslim adult population – or about 45 million people – say they are members of NU, while 50 per cent of the Muslim population practise NU’s culture such as tahlilan (prayer gathering) and nyekar (regular visits to ancestors’ graveyards).
- NU’s leadership comprises one general chairman, four deputy general chairmen, and a panel of 27 chairmen. It also has 12 treasurers, one secretary-general and 20 deputy secretary-generals.
- NU, as an institution, does not engage in politics, but its members have been known to support different political figures and parties.
- The National Awakening Party (PKB), which currently has 59 out of the total 575 seats in National Parliament, was founded and is run by NU members, but this does not necessarily mean that all NU members are PKB cadres. Many members are cadres of other political parties, including the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).