Indonesia's biggest Muslim organizations are having second thoughts about partisan politics
‘From NU for Indonesia, From Abdurrahman Wahid for Everyone’ – a PKB meeting, Jakarta, 2007
After the fall of the Suharto regime, Indonesia’s biggest Muslim organisations Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) decided to get involved in party politics. NU formed the National Awakening Party (PKB), while Amien Rais, then head of Muhammadiyah, established the National Mandate Party (PAN).
As the two organisations between them claim the allegiance of more than 80 million Indonesian Muslims, many Indonesians expected that PKB and PAN would dominate the post-Suharto political landscape. But two election cycles later, PKB and PAN remain relatively minor players. In response to their electoral failure, both organisations have declared formal neutrality. Muhammadiyah, which never threw its full institutional support behind PAN, has retreated even further and NU no longer endorses PKB.
Visits from political parties outnumber meetings with any other type of organisations in Muhammadiyah’s guestbook
The move to neutrality reflects many ordinary members’ disappointment with their experience of politics. But neutrality only goes so far. Neither organisation has been able to prevent its leaders from seeking elected positions at all levels of politics. And the refusal to endorse any one party has meant that multiple parties now court NU and Muhammadiyah. In fact, as a member of Muhammadiyah’s central board recently commented, visits from political parties now outnumber meetings with any other type of organisations in Muhammadiyah’s guestbook.
The path into politics
In the heyday of reformasi, NU and Muhammadiyah hoped that their large membership would bring electoral victory for their parties – and with it the prize of the presidency for one of their own. These hopes were soon dashed. The results of the 1999 elections made it clear that neither organisation had been able to get its members to support a single party. PKB received 13.3 million votes (12.6 per cent) whereas PAN attained 7.5 million votes (7.0 per cent), finishing a disappointing third and fifth.
Not that all of the early news was bad. Megawati Soekarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) won the most votes in the 1999 election, and she expected that she would be chosen as president. But Abdurrahman Wahid, then the chairperson of NU, outmaneuvered her, forming alliances both with a coalition of Muslim parties and even with sections of PDI-P itself. Wahid won the indirect vote for president, defeating Megawati by 373 to 313.
But five years later, little had changed in the 2004 parliamentary elections, when only 10.6 per cent of voters chose PKB and 6.4 per cent of voters supported PAN. Muhammadiyah also failed to deliver the support of its members to Amien Rais in the 2004 presidential election, by then a direct popular vote. Rais received only 17 million votes, far fewer than the organisation’s total membership. According to opinion polls, the popularity of both PKB and PAN continues to wane as the 2009 elections approach.
But it is not just the modest performance at the polls that has left NU and Muhammadiyah disappointed. Both organisations have come to feel marginalised within the parties that they helped to create. When it was launched in 1998, PKB was supposed to be an NU party, but over time Abdurrahman Wahid came to treat it as his own personal fiefdom. He fired anyone who was against him, and left NU feeling that its institutional interests were being ignored. The Islamic religious scholars who helped to build up PKB now complain that Abdurrahman Wahid no longer listens to them, so they don’t feel like supporting PKB anymore.
The already deteriorating relationship between NU and PKB was damaged further when the head of NU, Hasyim Muzadi, ran for the vice presidency in 2004 as a candidate for the rival Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P). Wahid panned Muzadi’s ultimately unsuccessful candidature, accusing Muzadi of taking advantage of NU for his own political gain.
Although Muhammadiyah never provided full institutional support to PAN, many Muhammadiyah members had joined the party in the hope of winning office. But to have a realistic chance of being elected, candidates needed to be high on the party’s list on the ballot form, as seats were allocated based on the order in which the party had placed its candidates.
As with NU, many Muhammadiyah members came to view partisan politics as unreliable and unrewarding
PAN refused to give Muhammadiyah members priority positions on its list of candidates in 2004, so few were elected. This caused the informal links between Muhammadiyah and PAN to start to break down. As with NU, many Muhammadiyah members came to view partisan politics as unreliable and unrewarding.
As a result of these developments, party politics had become a liability for both NU and Muhammadiyah. Their lobbying power was limited by the small share of seats that PAN and PKB received in the parliament. Being committed to a single party also made it harder for them to criticise the government’s policies or performance because it left them open to accusations that they were pushing their affiliated parties’ agenda. In the meantime, some members of NU and Muhammadiyah found it advantageous to be members of other major parties such as Golkar, PDI-P, or the United Development Party (PPP). If they are only committed to PKB and PAN, NU and Muhammadiyah as organizations cannot enjoy the fruits of having its members assume leadership positions in other political parties.
Giving up partisan politics is hard
As a result, Muhammadiyah and NU put a policy of neutrality into place. The stated goal of this policy was to facilitate the organisations’ departure from partisan politics. But in practice, it has led to greater engagement of individuals in the political arena. Muhammadiyah and NU may now be officially neutral, but neither organisation has genuinely disengaged. There are strong incentives to remain involved in politics, both as organisations and for individual members.
As organisations, NU and Muhammadiyah like to maintain access to a range of political parties because they derive specific benefits from those links. Through their party connections, each organisation can lobby for an increased share of the annual national budget. They also expect legislators to introduce laws and regulations to support their educational and health activities, or to help get NU and Muhammadiyah members appointed to government positions.
As individuals, many NU and Muhammadiyah leaders harbour personal political ambitions. In violation of the neutrality policy, NU leaders have continued to run in mayoral and gubernatorial elections, and sometimes have even competed against each other in the same poll. In the June 2008 election for governor of Central Java, four NU candidates ran against each other. They split the NU vote and none of them were elected. A month later, four more prominent NU figures ran as part of rival candidate pairs in the election for governor of East Java, including Kofifah Inda Parawansa, the head of the women’s wing of Nahdlatul Ulama, Muslimat NU, and Saifullah Yusuf, the national head of the NU youth organisation Ansor. No pair received more than 30 per cent of the votes, meaning a run-off will be held in November. This time an NU figure will definitely be elected, as both Yusuf’s and Kofifah’s tickets made the run-off.
Organisations associated with Muhammadiyah are also getting on the political band wagon. In an interview, the head of Muhammadiyah’s youth organisation claimed that 75 per cent of the organisation’s board members are engaged in partisan politics in direct defiance of the Muhammadiyah decree that board members of any of Muhammadiyah’s organisations must not occupy positions within political parties. Left with no choice, Muhammadiyah finally responded to this situation by allowing its youth members to continue their involvement in politics on the condition that they don’t bring partisan issues to Muhammadiyah.
Even the head of Muhammadiyah is tempted by politics. Many observers expect that Din Syamsuddin will run for the vice presidency in 2009. So far, Din has not responded to frequent questions on his possible candidacy, but he would be likely to run if a presidential candidate with a good chance of winning were to approach him.
Adopting formal neutrality was a return to their founding principles for Muhammadiyah and NU, and both organisations insist the policy is here to stay. But each time the leaders of these organisations run for office it undermines the credibility of the policy, and damages the religious community’s cohesiveness. To remain politically relevant under the neutrality policy, each organisation needs to find a way to unite their members’ voices whenever necessary. If they cannot, NU and Muhammadiyah may need to find a new strategy to maintain political influence. ii
Eunsook Jung (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.