Yahya Cholil Staquf

Yahya Cholil Staquf, the General Chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), at the inauguration of the 2022-2027 NU Headquarters (PBNU) board in January 2022. (Photo: Yahya Cholil Staquf/Twitter)

The Politics of Nahdliyyin: Uneasy Relations between NU and PKB

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There are indications that the relationship between Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the National Awakening Party (PKB) is tense. Whether the two entities can kiss and make up could determine how Indonesia’s moderate Muslims vote in the next election.

The 34th Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) National Congress (Muktamar) in Lampung in late 2021 elected new leadership for the largest mass Muslim organisation in Indonesia. It would seem that the cordial relationship between NU and the National Awakening Party (PKB) under previous NU leader Said Aqil Siradj’s leadership has ended. Yahya Staquf, general chairman of NU, has expressed his desire to keep NU “neutral” in its political practice, reiterating that NU should maintain its distance from all political parties. It is in line with bringing NU back to the principle of NU’s khittah (literally, “lines of organisation” based on the historical establishment of NU as a civil society organisation) from 1926. Returning to “Khittah 1926” was declared in 1984 and since then, NU was not supposed to be involved in any form of political practice. This means that NU Headquarters (PBNU) will suspend its connection with the PKB. Some questions that need to be addressed are how this policy would affect the PKB’s political prospects going into the 2024 elections and how the policy might affect the politics of nahdliyyin (followers of NU) in the future.

PKB leaders believe that Staquf’s move to depoliticise NU is directed at delegitimising their party. Muhaimin Iskandar, general chairman of PKB, has dismissed Staquf as not having much influence among NU’s grassroots. Iskandar’s sharp comment was likely prompted by Staquf’s statement that NU should not become PKB’s political tool. On his part, Staquf is possibly retaliating against the PKB leadership for not supporting his nomination as NU leader at last year’s Muktamar.

The NU-PKB relationship has seen its ups and downs. When PKB was formed in 1999, at the beginning of Indonesia’s reform era, the political aspirations of nahdliyyin were closely associated with and channelled through this party, at least for the 1999 and 2004 general elections (GE). Initiated by well-respected NU ulama such as the late president Abdurrahman Wahid, Cholil Bisri (father of Yahya Staquf), Mustofa Bisri (from Rembang, Central Java) and Ma’ruf Amin, PKB was the third-largest party after the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar in terms of the 1999 and 2004 GE vote-share. While NU was careful to avoid a formal declaration of support for PKB, most nahdliyyin agreed with PKB’s moderate, traditionalist stance and showed a clear preference for its brand of politics. PKB would not have survived as one of Indonesia’s top political parties in the last two decades if it did not receive such support from NU.

However, NU’s new leadership believes that its association with PKB has prevented NU from becoming an “umbrella” for all Muslims.

However, during the latter part of Hasyim Muzadi’s leadership of PBNU (1999-2010), there was a similar lack of close connection between the two entities. PKB’s elite perceived Muzadi as influencing NU’s followers to vote for the PPP (United Development Party) rather than the PKB. From Muzadi’s perspective, however, he was merely implementing the principle of khittah. Muzadi argued thatNU needed to be impartial to all political parties, including PKB.

It is clear that when it lacks NU’s clear support, PKB’s political clout suffers. For the 2009 GE, PKB dropped to seventh place, garnering less than 5 per cent of the overall vote-share and coming in behind the other Islamist parties, the United Development Party (PPP) and the National Mandate Party (PAN). PKB fared better when Said Aqil Siradj led NU, as relations were cordial. In the 2019 GE, PKB was in fourth place behind the PDI-P.

Undeniably, NU’s support for PKB has also benefited the former. However, NU’s new leadership believes that its association with PKB has prevented NU from becoming an “umbrella” for all Muslims and that being closely identified with PKB has limited the scope for NU to play a broader role. For Yahya Staquf, by returning to the original premise of NU as jam’iyyah (a mass organisation), NU can do a lot more for all stakeholders regardless of their political background or even their ethnicity and religion.

The ongoing tension between NU and PKB is detrimental for both organisations. Given the sheer size of NU’s membership, the nahdliyyin’s votes will remain highly sought after in the 2024 GE. Opportunistic politicians from other parties are likely to note this rift and court the nahdliyyin. Yahya Staquf could end up further from NU’s khittah than he plans to be.

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Syafiq Hasyim is a Lecturer of UIN Syarif Hidayatullah Jakarta and a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.