Ahmad Syaikhu, PKS President, welcomed Anies Baswedan and Muhaimin Iskandar to a gathering for the PKS, PKB and Nasdem ‘coalition for change’ on 12 September. Photo by Partai Keadilan Sejahtera.

The union of the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) under the banner of the Anies Baswedan and Muhaimin Amin presidential ticket has defied expectations.

On 12 September, PKS took an unexpected turn by officially welcoming PKB, led by Muhaimin Iskandar, to a meeting at the PKS headquarters.

The meeting room resounded with ‘Yalal Wathan’, the anthem of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the traditionalist religious organisation that gave birth to PKB. The Chairman of NU, Yahya Choli Staquf, did not object to PKS members joining the chorus.

It was a historic moment, marking the revival of a religious coalition between PKS and PKB, estranged since 2009.

This unprecedented move has significant implications for the upcoming presidential election, especially because of the coveted endorsement of NU, Indonesia’s largest religious organisation.


Opposite ends of the spectrum?

PKB, the party of NU, is regarded as a bastion of Islamic traditionalism in Indonesia, while PKS is seen as a torchbearer of Islamic modernism, and is often compared to the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The political division between traditionalists and modernists stems from their different approaches to religious scholarship and interpretations of Islamic law. These differences in religious orientation and political stance have precluded political cooperation in recent presidential elections.

It is easy to see PKB and PKS as being at opposite ends of a traditionalist-modernist political spectrum. But when we take a longer view of history we can see these different religious orientations do not always preclude collaboration.

For instance, cooperation in the Yudhoyono era presents a compelling counter-narrative. In 2009, PKB and PKS played a pivotal role in securing the victory of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his vice president, Boediono. The two parties, with other Islamic parties from across the traditionalist-modernist spectrum (including the Muhammadiyah-affiliated National Mandate Party,  and the United Development Party) were part of the coalition led by the incumbent Democrat Party.

Prior to that, in 1999, PAN’s Amien Rais initiated what would be known as ‘the Central Axis’ through a partnership with PKB and the Justice Party (PK), which would later become PKS. This coalition helped elect Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid as president in 1999.

There are also more recent examples at the sub-national level. For example, in the 2018 Central Java gubernatorial election, PKB, PKS, PAN and Gerindra backed Sudirman Said and Ida Fauziah. The duo garnered a surprising 41.2% of the total vote against the popular incumbent Governor, now presidential candidate, Ganjar Pranowo.

During the campaign, NU’s women’s groups, such as Fatayat and Muslimat, played a crucial role in securing votes, particularly from female NU followers. Even though Ganjar ended up winning, the contest showed Indonesian voters can look past their religious differences when the Islamic parties are prepared to work together.


A pragmatic alliance

Electorally, these two parties hold a lot of sway. In the latest national elections, PKB and PKS emerged as the top two Islamic parties with 9.69% and 8.21% of the vote respectively.

They have also shown resilience in the face of controversy. Both have weathered crises and internal conflict, like PKS’s fracture into pro-justice and pro-welfare factions, and PKB’s long-running dispute between Gus Dur and Muhaimin Iskandar supporters.

But PKS, in particular, has adopted a more pragmatic political strategy in two waves over recent decades. First, the party stepped back from some of the more radical ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which were not well suited to the Indonesian political context.

Second, PKS adopted a  more moderate political posture, to appeal to less devout voters. For example, it changed the party’s policy in 2008, allowing the party to accept non-Muslim members.

These reforms allowed the party to become more familiar with, and accepting of, traditionalist Islam, which has paved the way for PKS to openly endorse a PKB candidate. Now the new hashtag #PKSPilihAniesImin (PKS choses Anies-Muhaimin) is helping popularise PKS’s commitment to the Anies-Muhaimin candidacy.


Don’t underestimate the Ukhuwah Islamiah in 2024

The unexpected alliance between PKB and PKS signifies a pivotal moment in recent Indonesian politics, reversing the prevailing discourse of division, even polarisation, between traditionalists and modernists.Pollsters failed to anticipate this collaboration, given the prevailing history of discord between the two parties.

Currently, few pundits give Anies Baswedan a chance in the 2024 election. But beyond simplistic electoral calculations, there may be an overlooked strategy at play. Despite their differences, PKS and PKB are part of a broader community of solidarity, known as the ukhuwah Islamiah or Islamic brotherhood.

The strength of this community was demonstrated before when Amin Rais and his associates rallied behind Abdurahman Wahid’s presidency, uniting Islamic forces in parliament under the ukhuwah Islamiah banner.

As the political landscape evolves, this coalition may reshape the upcoming presidential election, leveraging not only their electoral might but also the powerful undercurrent of an Islamic brotherhood that unites them.

It remains to be seen whether this union will usher in a new era of Islamic politics in Indonesia, but it undoubtedly presents a compelling narrative of stability and cooperation. And it might just make some voters think again about their pick for the elections next year.

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