In Indonesian politics, securing the support of the country’s largest mass Muslim organisation would be a jewel in the crown.
For anyone hoping to clinch the Indonesian presidency, the electoral support of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) is a strategic prize, as was evident from the 2019 and 2014 elections. Its support base is estimated to be 45 million strong while NU leadership claims half of Indonesia’s Muslims – a significant size for a potential electorate of at least 192 million.
Anies Baswedan is the preferred presidential nominee of Indonesia’s National Democrats (NasDem), the Democratic Party (Partai Demokrat, PD) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) for 2024’s presidential race. Anies’ connection with the current NU leadership, however, seems distant when compared with that of the other frontrunners, Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto and Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo. Unlike Prabowo and Ganjar, Anies has not attended NU’s larger events, like the R20 Summit in Bali on 4-6 November 2022 and the recent centennial commemoration of NU in East Java. Anies rarely meets NU Chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf, who has led NU since 2022.
Anies’ prime supporters like NasDem and former vice president Jusuf Kalla are apparently advising him to recruit an NU cadre to be his running-mate. Politically speaking, the support of NasDem, PD and PKS suffices to secure a presidential nomination for Anies, as they have enough of a parliamentary seat-share to meet the required nomination threshold. But while former president Bambang Yudhoyono’s son Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono (AHY) who leads PD is the party’s logical choice for Anies’ partner, Anies and NasDem seem reticent about declaring any such decision. Thus, speculation is rife that Anies and NasDem want an NU or NU-supported figure on board.
This was reinforced by Anies’ mentor and key supporter Jusuf Kalla’s recent statement that Khofifah Indar Parawansa (fourteenth Governor of East Java and former head of NU’s women’s wing, Muslimat, until 2021) was the perfect figure to accompany Anies. Khofifah – by virtue of her governorship of NU’s stronghold and ministerial experience in NU royalty and former president Abdurrahman Wahid’s and the first Joko Widodo (Jokowi) cabinets – would be a force in her own right. A Jakarta Post article from December 2022 pointed out as much, while Anies’ campaign news outlet, KBA News, recently floated a test balloon essentially touting Khofifah as meeting all the requirements to be Anies’ running-mate.
If Anies can form a team with Khofifah, this would undoubtedly attract some NU voters. While he is not a sayyid (one who claims descent from the Prophet), Anies is of Arab descent and his grandfather Abdurrahman Baswedan was the founder of the Arab Party in Indonesia. Considering Khofifah as his running-mate would be strategic and might pave the way for more NU support for Anies, correcting his apparent Achilles’ heel of weak support in East Java specifically, and more broadly among moderate Indonesian Muslims.
However, NU headquarters may step on the brakes for any talk of formally endorsing a link with Anies Baswedan by one of its key cadres. Even though Khofifah’s connection with the current NU leadership is quite close, NU leaders arguably are closer to President Jokowi. NU may consider building ties with any of “Jokowi’s boys” (author’s term), a group which includes Prabowo, Ganjar Pranowo, and minister of state-owned enterprises Erick Thohir. Anies would arguably have to take a number behind Prabowo and Ganjar. Khofifah is also considered a potential running-mate for Prabowo.
Anies does not have a real relationship with Staquf even though they are both University of Gajah Mada alums. When Anies was the governor of Jakarta, he was quite close to then NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj (who unsuccessfully opposed Yahya Staquf in the Lampung congress or muktamar of 2021). Said had once called Anies the “governor of Indonesia”. Anies’ association with Said is a double-edged sword. While Said still has a faction within NU, he is no longer the official leader and remains tainted by the perception that he steered NU too close to politics.
However, NU headquarters may step on the brakes for any talk of formally endorsing a link with Anies Baswedan by one of its key cadres.
Anies himself has a track record of using identity politics to further his political ambition, as was seen in his bid for the Jakarta governorship, which still dogs him. In contrast, NU’s Staquf strongly opposes the use of identity politics. Yahya Staquf’s recent statements at NU’s centennial celebrations may have been obliquely aimed at Anies. Back in 2017, Staquf had actively advocated against using identity politics in the Jakarta election.
To complicate matters, the NU vote will be split, one way or another. The NU base’s sheer size means that no one presidential pair will be able to garner all its votes. For now, Said Aqil Siradj seems committed to supporting National Awakening Party (PKB) chairman and Deputy Speaker of the DPR Muhaimin Iskandar as Prabowo’s vice-presidential mate.
Despite the possible reluctance of the current NU leadership in endorsing Anies, things can still evolve depending on how Khofifah positions herself and if Anies can close the gap in popularity polls between him and Prabowo and Ganjar, who have a stranglehold on the top two positions (depending on which poll). If NasDem – a party which nominated Khofifah for the East Java gubernatorial election in 2018 – and Jusuf Kalla can convince Khofifah to join Anies, this may partly compensate for the lack of NU’s official endorsement.
Syafiq Hasyim is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore, and Lecturer and Director of Library and Culture at the Indonesian International Islamic University.