New Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Stafuq in Balikpapan on 30 January. Photo by Novi Abdi for Antara.

 

The swearing-in ceremony for the leadership team of Indonesia’s largest Islamic organisation, Nahdatul Ulama (NU), under its new chair, Yahya Cholil Stafuq (or Gus Yahya), took place in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, on 31 January. It was attended by some of the biggest political names in the country, including: President Joko Widodo (Jokowi); former Vice President Jusuf Kalla; and Puan Maharani, the speaker of the national legislature (and daughter of former president, Megawati Soekarnoputri, leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P)).

But one person was notably absent – Muhaimin Iskandar (Cak Imim), the chair of the National Awakening Party (PKB). This is significant, because this is a party that is often described as the political vehicle of NU. Its founders include legendary NU figures like the former NU chair and president, Abdurrahman Wahid (Gus Dur), Mustofa Bisri (Gus Mus), and Abdul Muchit Muzadi.

So why would Muhaimin dodge the event?

Yahya triumphed over incumbent Said Aqil Siradj, a long-time ally of Muhaimin, at NU’s 34th national congress (muktamar) in Lampung in December 2021. One of the key pledges that Yahya made during his campaign for the chair position was that NU would not be used as a political vehicle by politicians or political parties. He even promised that “there will no president or vice-presidential candidate from Nahdatul Ulama”, referring to the fact that current Vice President Ma’ruf Amin was previously a senior figure in NU’s leadership team. Yahya further stated that NU should not be used as a political tool by PKB, seemingly referring to the way that PKB head Muhaimin had sought to use NU to the party’s advantage.

But despite this rhetoric, Yahya appointed politicians from multiple parties to the 2022-2027 NU leadership team. These included: Mardani H Maming, a PDI-P politician and coal baron from South Kalimantan; Golkar Party legislator Nusron Wahid; and Central Java Vice Governor Taj Yassin Maimoen, from the United Development Party (PPP). Not only that, but two PKB politicians made the cut: Pasuruan Mayor Saifullah Yusuf (a former chair of PKB); and East Java Governor Khofifah Indar Parawansa.

Yahya’s objection therefore seems to be less about political parties, not even PKB, but more about Muhaimin himself.

Unfinished business

In fact, the roots of the conflict between Yahya and Muhaimin extend back to 2008, during Muhaimin’s first period as PKB chair. In the lead-up to the 2009 election, Muhaimin held several meetings with the inner circle of then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But he failed to seek approval for these political manoeuvres from PKB Advisory Board chair Gus Dur, who promptly fired him.

But Muhaimin fought back. With the support of senior figures in PKB and NU, Muhaimin orchestrated a special assembly of the party, where he managed to retain his position as PKB chair, removed Yenny Wahid (Gus Dur’s daughter) as PKB secretary general and replaced her with Lukman Eddy, and most dramatically, installed KH Aziz Manshur to replace Gus Dur. The former president ended up staying away from politics until he died in December 2009.

Even though some senior NU figures backed Muhaimin’s takeover of the party, many Gus Dur loyalists still consider the events of this time as an act of treason against the party’s founding father.

Over recent months, Wahid family members and other Gus Dur loyalists have reignited the conflict. Alissa Wahid said Muhaimin never apologised to Gus Dur for what happened in 2008. Her sister, Yenny Wahid, described Muhaimin’s leadership of PKB as being characterised by oligarchy and nepotism. They both said that Muhaimin had prevented Gus Dur’s family from participating in PKB activities.

Yahya, by contrast, previously served as spokesperson for Gus Dur and remains close to the family. He shares the family’s disappointment about Muhaimin’s leadership.

Muhaimin still has a strong hold over PKB. But Gus Dur loyalists, and increasingly, since Yahya has taken over as leader, senior NU figures, are now expressing open criticism of Muhaimin. Some have even called for Yenny Wahid to replace Muhaimin as PKB chair.

What’s next for Muhaimin and PKB?

Muhaimin has established robust relationships with many high-ranking religious leaders (kiai) in East and Central Java, major strongholds for NU. His loyalists in the senior ranks of PKB praise him for his ability to build strong relationships with NU activists on the ground.

It is no secret that Muhaimin has long had ambitions for more senior office. He hoped to secure a spot as Jokowi’s vice president in 2019 and is now preparing for a run in 2024. Indeed, kiai and NU followers in multiple regions of East Java have already declared their support for Muhaimin as a potential presidential candidate in 2024.

This has irritated Yahya, who immediately sought to reprimand NU leaders in Banyuwangi, Sidoarjo and Bodowoso, reminding them to stay out of politics. Similarly, just two days before the swearing-in ceremony in Balikpapan, two younger NU figures, KH Abdussalam Shohib (Gus Salam) and Abdurrohman Al-Kautsar (Gus Kautsar), resigned from the NU senior leadership team. Both had openly supported Muhaimin.

Muhaimin will surely try to fix his relationship with Yahya, as an ongoing rift could affect his future political ambitions. If he fails to smooth things over soon, we are likely to see more senior NU figures, possibly including Yahya himself, openly criticising Muhaimin.

However, Yahya is not going to want to be too vocal. He knows he has his own share of opponents within NU. If he is too aggressive in his criticism, it may embolden his opponents within the organisation to openly back Muhaimin.

Whatever happens, this ongoing tension is probably only going to end up benefiting other political parties. The two parties that stand to gain the most from this friction are PDI-P, which has sought to strengthen its ties with NU under Yahya, and the oldest of the Islam-based parties, PPP.

Given Muhaimin and Yahya have such longstanding animosity, one might question why Muhaimin did not openly back Yahya’s opponent for the NU leadership, Said Aqil Siradj. In fact, Muhaimin and Said Aqil have long been political allies, and Said Aqil even supported Muhaimin as a potential running mate for Jokowi in the 2019 Presidential Election.

Some have suggested that Muhaimin chose not to publicly support Said Aqil because he wanted to avoid potential conflict with Jokowi, who purportedly backed Yahya in the NU leadership contest. But there is limited firm evidence of this.

It is difficult to know whether more open support and backing from Muhaimin could have got Said Aqil across the line, but Muhaimin’s failure to back Said Aqil is now starting to look like a mistake. It means Muhaimin must now deal with one of his main political rivals as the chair of Indonesia’s biggest Islamic organisation, an organisation that will be crucial for his future political ambitions. The story would have been very different if Said Aqil had retained his position as NU chair.

The road ahead is anything but smooth. Muhaimin’s political savvy will certainly be put to the test if he hopes to be a serious player in 2024.

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