The traditional linkages between political parties and mass organisations where Indonesia’s moderate Muslims are concerned may be shifting, with consequences in and beyond 2024.
On 18 February 2023, the Central Board of the National Mandate Party (Partai Amanat Nasional, PAN) organised a surprising and unusual symposium entitled “A Century of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU)” in Surabaya, East Java. The event was surprising mainly because, historically, PAN has been synonymous with Muhammadiyah, the mass Muslim organisation that was the midwife of PAN.
In attendance were NU Chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf, NU General Secretary Saifullah Yusuf, and several kyai, such as Fuad Nurhasan of Sidogiri, who heads one of the largest and most influential Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) in East Java. The symposium commemorated the 100th anniversary of NU’s establishment. (In the Islamic lunar calendar, the NU was founded on 16 Rajab 1344: 7 February 2023 was equivalent to 16 Rajab 1444. In the Gregorian calendar, NU’s founding was on 31 January 1926.)
People might quickly assume that the symposium’s purpose was to attract NU followers or members to vote for PAN or a legislative or presidential candidate from or supported by PAN in the 2024 elections.
Before and during the symposium, Yahya Staquf, Zulkifli Hasan (PAN chairman and the Minister of Trade) and PAN leaders joked that PAN’s acronym in East Java did not stand for “Partai Amanat Nasional” but “Partainya Anak Nahdliyyin” (NU Members’ Party), “Partai Anak Nahdliyyin” (Party of NU) or even “Partai Akan NU” (Party that would become NU). It is well known that East Java is where the NU was born and its grassroots base. East Javanese perhaps comprise around 50 per cent of NU’s total membership, while East Java is home to thousands of NU-affiliated pesantren. Given this demographic reality, East Java has traditionally boosted votes for the National Awakening Party (Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa, PKB) – most closely identified with the late president Abdurrahman Wahid (d.2009; president October 1999-July 2001).
In previous elections, to attract potential NU voters, other parties, including PAN, would organise istighosah, a communal chant and prayer tradition within the NU. These parties would facilitate or sponsor transportation for another NU tradition, such as ziarah (a “small pilgrimage”), to pay respects to the Wali Songo, the nine most venerated Muslim saints in Java. This was done in several districts, such as by PAN’s Blitar branch in the south of East Java province. Several PAN legislative candidates from East Java are NU kyai or leaders and do not necessarily relinquish their NU positions even after winning a legislative seat.
In his opening speech, Yahya Staquf stated that it was not haram (prohibited) for NU members to vote for PAN or its legislative candidates in 2024. He praised PAN for becoming “partai yang rasional” (a rational political party) by trying to stay away from identity politics or manipulating any religious or other sectarian tendency (of the people). Alluding that this was consistent with the spirit of NU, Staquf stressed that “NU ngotot menolak politik identitas (NU insists on rejecting identity politics)”.
With this symposium, PAN has certainly tried to draw close to NU followers. However, this event could also be interpreted as PAN starting to disassociate from or at least loosen its ties with Muhammadiyah. Is this a smart move for PAN?
An individual voting for a political party or candidate often does not decide based on rational choice. In many cases, a vote is based on emotion or sentiment, a real or felt personal connection with the candidate, and even money politics.
In Indonesia’s context, Muhammadiyah members voted for PAN in the past, perhaps because of their historical memory of this party and its connection with Muhammadiyah. When there is no candidate that fits with one’s ideals, a Muhammadiyah member might have still voted for a PAN candidate, given its close links to Muhammadiyah.
If PAN cuts that emotional bond with Muhammadiyah and makes a move to get NU voters, as the symposium seemed to suggest, the result could backfire – PAN could lose loyal Muhammadiyah voters and those who are emotionally close to PAN. This could potentially jeopardise PAN’s electoral threshold in 2024. According to Law No. 7 of 2017 on the General Election, political parties with less than four per cent of the popular vote are not entitled to win parliamentary seats (i.e., the parliamentary threshold). In 2019, PAN scraped together about 7 per cent of the national vote.
If PAN cuts that emotional bond with Muhammadiyah and makes a move to get NU voters, as the symposium seemed to suggest, the result could backfire…
Staquf had commented at the symposium that “in PAN, there was no drama of a party being ‘stolen’” – without naming anyone or the party to which he alluded. People easily guessed, however, that this referred to Deputy Speaker of the People’s Representative Council (DPR) Muhaimin Iskandar, who was elected as PKB’s chairman in April 2005 by acclamation against protests by some of his rivals. Indonesian observers would know that PKB’s relationship with NU is analogous to that of PAN’s with Muhammadiyah.
Unlike the previous NU chairman, Said Aqil Siradj, however, Staquf seems not to have a good relationship with Muhaimin and PKB. After being elected as NU chairman, one of Staquf’s first moves was to disassociate NU from politics, even saying that for the 2024 presidential election, Indonesia’s president and vice president would not come from the NU. Staquf’s statements at the symposium could be interpreted as opening the way for another party to compete with the PKB for the hearts and votes of NU followers. PAN has certainly taken that chance. It remains to be seen if PAN’s outreach to NU may be miscalculated and instead loosen the bond of Muhammadiyah members with PAN.
Ahmad Najib Burhani is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.