Photo by Hauke Ciervo from Flickr.

Indonesia’s political landscape teems with different parties, and a diverse, often unpredictable voter base makes endorsements crucial to achieving electoral success.

As Indonesia prepares for the 2024 general elections, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) – the nation’s largest religious organisation – finds itself at the centre of a political tug of war as presidential candidates and political parties actively jostle for its endorsement. All three 2024 candidates – Ganjar Pranowo, Prabowo Subianto, and Anies Baswedan – are now looking to burnish their religious credentials through party alliances and negotiations with prominent NU members.

NU’s leaders need to keep in mind that competition for NU’s endorsement has the potential to influence not only the country’s political landscape, but also the organisation itself.


The ultimate endorsement?

NU is the largest religious organisation in Indonesia, and one of the largest Muslim organisations in the world, with an estimated supports 45 million supporters.

NU promotes a traditionalist brand of Islam that is more accepting of local Indonesia’s unique local traditions. It is often contrasted with Indonesia’s second largest religious organisation Muhammadiyah, which has roughly half the members of NU, and champions a modernist interpretation of Islam that is more critical of Indonesia’s syncretic traditions.

NU’s influence is extensive. Its dedication to Islamic values, social welfare, and religious tolerance appeals to a broad spectrum of Muslims. It also maintains a grassroots network of schools, universities, hospitals and agricultural groups that permeate urban and rural areas.

This influence is what makes NU’s endorsement so highly sought after. But as an organisation, NU does not explicitly endorse political parties or candidates, or directly engage in practical politics – in theory, at least.

However, the political neutrality of NU has been progressively eroded since the end of the New Order. The NU Central Board (PBNU) helped establish the National Awakening Party (PKB) in the post-Soeharto era, which helped Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid to rise to President in 1999. NU maintains neutrality by not formally endorsing PKB – but its leadership remain closely affiliated with the party.


Fighting for endorsement in 2024

Party alliances and the selection of vice presidential candidates, a critical part of any electoral strategy, are often linked to endorsement by religious organisations – and this can determine the outcomes of elections. This seemed to be proven in 2019, when Joko Widodo was re-elected after selecting Ma’ruf Amin, a prominent NU leader, as his running mate.

Already, Prabowo Subianto, through his party the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), has secured an alliance with PKB to consolidate their respective voter bases. This month, Prabowo even said he would let Muhaimin “Cak Imin” Iskandar, the Chairman of PKB, pick Probowo’s vice presidential running mate. It is not clear who Cak Imin will nominate, although he will almost certainly propose a name from among NU’s ranks.

The other two challengers – Anies Baswedan and Ganajar Pranowo – are also trying to stake a claim to NU. Anies, the former Jakarta governor, has notably considered Khofifah Indar Parawansa, a prominent NU figure, as his running mate. She would help him leverage NU’s influence, especially in East Java, where NU has a major following. Anies has also been linked to Yenny Wahid, daughter of Gus Dur.

There has been speculation about Yaqut Cholil “Gus Yaqut” Qoumas, the Minister of Religious Affairs and the younger brother of Yahya Cholil “Gus Yahya” Staquf, the Chairman of the NU Central Board, emerging as vice presidential candidate for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), Ganjar Pranowo. Meanwhile, Megawati Soekarnoputri, the PDIP chairperson, has met with Mahfud MD, the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs and an NU member.

But the relationship between political parties and NU requires careful navigation. Parties must align with NU’s principles and goals without compromising their own ideologies. They must ensure their agenda complements NU’s objectives and philosophy while avoiding the perception of pandering solely to NU, which could risk alienating other essential voter bases.

For example, an NU endorsement could help Ganjar defend against religious campaigning from his competitors – as it did for Jokowi in 2019. However, the selection of an overtly religious figure running mate might isolate Ganjar’s secular-nationalist base.

Similarly, an NU-affiliated running mate could help Anies Baswedan consolidate the Islamic vote by strengthening his appeal with Muslim moderates. But he will also need to carefully manage tensions between the traditionalist and modernist perspectives of Islam to win the broad support from Indonesian Muslims. This might not be easy for him given his association with identity politics and hardliners.


Protecting NU’s legitimate political role

It is not just candidates and parties that face uncertainty in the quest for NU’s endorsement. The politicisation of NU detracts from its core focus on religious instruction and social welfare. The organisation’s leaders must remain vigilant to prevent their influence from being exploited for political gains that may not align with NU’s principles and objectives. It will also be important for Gus Yahya, Chairman of the NU Central Board, to uphold his pledge of political neutrality.

Moreover, the strategic courtship of NU by political parties has broader implications for Indonesian civil society, with politicisation blurring the lines between religious organisations and political establishments.

NU’s political involvement may help shape discourse, but it also risks exposing internal divisions within NU and polarisation within the Muslim community. As NU navigates its increasing political influence, it must ensure it does not contribute to rising sectarianism. NU’s political engagement offers an opportunity to combat religious intolerance and radicalism, As an organisation that claims to be a champion of moderation and tolerance, its political involvement should serve to counter extremism rather than fuel divisions.

It can also signify a level of democratic maturity when civil society organisations, like NU, amplify the voices of grassroots members. If managed correctly, this can lead to a more robust, dynamic, and inclusive democratic process.

A delicate balance must be maintained between acknowledging NU’s legitimate political influence and preserving its integrity. This balance will ensure that NU can continue its primary purpose without its mission being overshadowed by the interests of political elites.

Whatever the attractions of being close to power, the organisation’s leaders must remain vigilant to prevent their influence from being exploited for political gains that may not align with NU’s apolitical principles and objectives.

, ,

We acknowledge and pay respect to the Traditional Owners of the lands upon which our campuses are situated.

Phone:13 MELB (13 6352) | International: +(61 3) 9035 5511
The University of Melbourne ABN:84 002 705 224
CRICOS Provider Code:00116K (visa information)