Muhammadiyah’s smooth running of its recent leadership election shows that democratic choice can be exercised by letting candidates’ reputations speak for themselves.
After two years of delay, Muhammadiyah successfully organised its 48th Muktamar (Congress) in Surakarta (Solo), Central Java, from 18-20 November 2022. The Muktamar typically takes place every five years but the 47th Congress was held in Makassar back in 2015. Muhammadiyah had decided to extend the mandate of its chairmen and regional leadership by two years from 2020, given pandemic restrictions on large gatherings and inter-province travel.
At the 2022 Congress, Haedar Nashir and Abdul Mu’ti were re-elected as Muhammadiyah’s chairman and secretary for their second terms (2022 to 2027). Since 2010, a two-term limit (like the limit on Indonesia’s presidency) has been imposed on the chairmanship. Their re-election was almost unanimous: out of 2,519 provincial and district representatives, 2,203 voted for Nashir and 2,159 for Mu’ti.
Unlike in other mass organisations, during the Muhammadiyah leadership election, representatives cast votes for 13 names out of 39 candidates. Why 13? No specific reason is given, but as a rationalist Muslim organisation, Muhammadiyah likes to challenge what is seen as taboo or as ‘irrational’ belief (takhayyul), and to do away with the unnecessary sacralisation or reification of things other than God. In Muhammadiyah’s strict monotheism, its followers believe that the only source of power is God. Many people believe that 13 is an unlucky number, possibly bringing even suffering and death. To challenge this unfounded belief, Muhammadiyah chooses 13 top leaders.
The logistics of Muhammadiyah’s election are intricate. First, the central board and Muktamar committee distribute application forms to its regional and district offices, departments, and organisasi otonom (autonomous institutions) like Pemuda Muhammadiyah (Muhammadiyah Youth) and the young women’s wing, Nasyiatul Aisyiyah (Aisyiyah Youth). 216 candidates’ names collected through these applications are then sent up to the committee of Congress. This list is then cut to 126 names, and then 92. A few days before the Congress, in a forum called Tanwir (literally, “enlightenment”), the second most important leadership meeting, regional representatives whittle the group down to 39 names. During the actual Muktamar, this list is reduced to the 13 individuals who will be the chairmen of Muhammadiyah.
Democracy does not always have to mean sharp polarisation, conflict, social distrust, and segregation.
For the 2022-27 term, the chosen 13 are Haedar Nashir, Abdul Mu’ti, Anwar Abbas, Busyro Muqoddas, Hilman Latief, Muhadjir Effendy, Syamsul Anwar, Agung Danarto, Saad Ibrahim, Syafiq A. Mughni, Dadang Kahmad, Ahmad Dahlan Rais, and Irwan Akib.
Four are new faces. Hilman Latief (b. 1975) is the Director General of Haj and Umrah (pilgrimage) at Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. Din Syamsuddin, former chairman of Muhammadiyah (2005-2015), had promoted Hilman Latief as darah segar (“fresh blood”) for Muhammadiyah’s leadership. Besides his professional credentials, Hilman Latief’s pedigree is also significant: his father, Maman Abdurrahman, is the former chairman of Persatuan Islam (Unity of Islam), the third largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia.
While Syamsul Anwar (b. 1956) is not young, this was the first time he was willing to run for Muhammadiyah’s central leadership. Apparently, the late Ahmad Syafii Maarif (chairman of Muhammadiyah from 1998-2005) had asked Anwar to apply for candidacy before he passed. Syamsul Anwar has been the head of Muhammadiyah’s Council of Tarjih and Tajdid (Fatwa and Reform) since 2020. The third ‘new’ face, Saad Ibrahim (b. 1954), is the chairman of Muhammadiyah’s East Java regional board.
Muhammadiyah’s membership view Saad and Anwar as representing the organisation’s values of humility and modesty. Besides their humble lifestyles, both leaders had served Muhammadiyah for a long time without eyeing positions on the national board. They are religious experts with little political interest on their minds.
Special mention needs to be made of the fourth new leader Irwan Akib, born in Pare-pare, South Sulawesi in 1963. For the first time in Muhammadiyah’s history, the membership has elected a representative from the eastern part of Indonesia (traditionally seen as less Islamic given the more diverse religious makeup of the eastern islands) on its national board. Traditionally, candidates from Java and Sumatra have dominated the regional branches and succeeded as elected central board representatives.
To this author, it was significant that the process of Muhammadiyah’s latest leadership election was peaceful, orderly, and quick. On occasion, physical fights and tense conflicts have characterised some national elections for several mass organisations. Some might even view harsh competition and polarisation as emblematic of ‘democracy’. During the election, election materials like banners, flyers and pamphlets were not distributed. There was no campaigning as such, as the membership assessed candidates’ track records and their activities in previous terms (if they held past positions). Compared to more fiery leadership contests, the Muktamar was adem (cool and peaceful).
The process of election was quick because Muhammadiyah used electronic voting (e-voting) for the first time. Participants who had the right to vote were given tokens with a QR code. At the voting booths in the Edutorium Hall at the University of Muhammadiyah of Surakarta (UMS), they scanned their QR code and were shown the shortlist of 39 names on touch screen monitors. After choosing 13 names out of these 39, their votes were automatically printed as proof that they had successfully voted. The leadership decided to reveal the collated results of the voting only after all voters had cast their choices so as not to influence or sway those who voted later.
What can we learn from Muhammadiyah’s 48th Congress? First, Muhammadiyah’s use of e-voting took less than four hours and was not just fast, effective, and efficient, but also became a way to educate older leaders about the benefits of using digital technology. Second, Muhammadiyah’s smooth and peaceful leadership election process could be an example for Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections in 2024. Democracy does not always have to mean sharp polarisation, conflict, social distrust, and segregation. The modernist leaders and members of Muhammadiyah have shown that peaceful and clean elections are possible, even in a digital era.
Ahmad Najib Burhani is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.