Political neutrality of Indonesia's largest Islamic organisation in question after members allegedly told to support Prabowo

NU had pledged to stay neutral in the 2024 election and to distance itself from politics.

Keyla Supharta | January 31, 2024, 01:48 PM

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The political neutrality of the largest Islamic organisation in Indonesia has come into question, following reports that its leadership is rallying support for frontrunner Prabowo Subianto, Jakarta Post and CNN Indonesia reported.

Prominent cleric and Muslim scholar Nadirsyah Hosen, commonly known as Gus Nadir, claimed in a recent episode of political podcast GASPOL that top Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) officials are trying to sway its members to support Prabowo and his running mate, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, with an eye towards avoiding a runoff election.

Unwritten instruction

With an estimated membership of anywhere between 40 to 150 million, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) has played an important role in shaping the outcome of presidential elections in the Muslim-majority country.

According to a recent opinion poll, Prabowo and Gibran will only be able to secure 46 per cent of the vote on Feb. 14, less than the above 50 per cent required to secure a victory in a single round, and avoid a runoff.

In the podcast, Gus Nadir claimed that NU's top officials gathered its regional branch leaders across the country for an informal meeting at a hotel in Surabaya, East Java, on Jan. 7.

In the meeting, NU's chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf supposedly gave an unwritten instruction, asking the leaders to support Prabowo and Gibran in the upcoming election.

Miftachul Achyar, the current supreme leader of NU, was reportedly present in the meeting and had told members to obey the instructions.

Gus Nadir, who is the former head of NU's religious council in the Australia and New Zealand branch, expressed his disappointment in the podcast, saying that NU had shifted from its traditional neutral stance in politics.

Unfounded speculation

However, Yahya rejected Gus Nadir's claims, calling them "unfounded speculation".

"Anyone can make assumptions about anything nowadays," Yahya said, as quoted by Jakarta Post.

Yahya assumed his leadership role in Indonesia's largest Islamic organisation in 2021, after promising to make NU a politically-neutral organisation again.

At that point, there was increasing worry that the organisation and some of its top officials were becoming too closely affiliated with political parties and President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's administration.

NU enjoyed a close relationship with Jokowi throughout his presidency.

The organisation received numerous grants, while many of its senior leaders were appointed as cabinet ministers, ambassadors, and board members of different state-owned enterprises, Jakarta Post said.

Pledged to stay neutral

Under Yahya's leadership, NU pledged to stay neutral in the 2024 election and to distance itself from politics.

This includes banning its leaders from running for elected office, including for president and vice president. Top officials were also told to abstain from joining any presidential campaign team.

Jokowi's vice president, Ma'ruf Amin, was the supreme leader of NU before he stepped down to run in the 2019 presidential election.

"What can we do?"

Despite the chairman's pledge of neutrality, Yahya said during an NU conference in September 2023 that "NU will never be too far away from Jokowi".

He also reportedly affirmed NU's support for Jokowi ahead of the 2024 election campaign season as many of the outgoing leaders had worked closely with NU for a long time.

Responding to Gus Nadir's statement, Yahya said that he couldn't do much if his followers in the organisation were inclined to support one of the presidential candidates, CNN Indonesia reported.

"If others are moved by a statement made by another party, and proceed to take an action (based on that statement), then what can we do?" he asked.

Returning favour

While Jokowi has yet to publicly express support for any presidential candidate, the fact that his son could become Prabowo's vice president has led to speculation about his preferences.

For his part, Jokowi himself has said that as a father, he cannot stop his son from pursuing his own political career. Gibran, who was previously a member of the PDI-P party like his father, is running as an independent.

Supporting Prabowo and Gibran in the February election might be a way for NU to return Jokowi's favour, said Sukron Kamil, Arabic cultural and political professor at the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN), speaking to the Jakarta Post.

Historically, NU has been dependent on state resources and support to carry out its activities.

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