Cleric who would be vice-president

VOTES 2004

Hasyim Muzadi is eyeing the vice-presidency, and the big guns are eyeballing him. The leader of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation talks to The Straits Times bureau chief DERWIN PEREIRA about his chances

Mr Hasyim Muzadi has a sweet tooth.

The chairman of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), pops sweet Arabian dates or kurma into his mouth one after another as he talks about his ambition to be Indonesia’s next vice-president.

The doyen of spiritual leaders in the country is dapper. He is dressed in a cleanly pressed white long-sleeved shirt, dark grey slacks and a blue-striped tie.

The 57-year-old cleric presents an avuncular image. He stands tall, with broad shoulders on his medium-sized frame.

In striking contrast to the flamboyance and visionary rhetoric of his predecessor Abdurrahman Wahid, Mr Hasyim is all about pragmatism and simple goals. He is also cautious.

His answers almost always come out slow and contemplative. His friends say that his impulse to think rather than feel his way through situations leads to rather over-controlled responses.

His guardedness is not due just to Javanese passivity.

Political circumstances have trapped him in a dilemma.

As leader of the 40-million-strong NU, he commands a wide support base in Indonesia. But he cannot use his position to stake his claim on office because the NU is not a political outfit.

Complicating matters, the party that draws most of its backing from the NU – the Nation Awakening Party (PKB) – has anointed its founder Abdurrahman as its presidential candidate.

And Mr Hasyim clearly has had a volatile relationship with the former president.

When asked, he shows little hint of concern over these problems. He picks up a piece of kurma from a half-empty crimson-coloured box on a teakwood table littered with other gift-wrapped boxes of biscuits, sweets and kurma.

He rolls it in the palm of his right hand and ponders an answer that he does not give before throwing back a question: ‘What else do you want to know?’

Does he want to be president? No. He wants to be vice-president, he says.

It is ambition circumscribed by the boundaries of political opportunity.

He explains: ‘I don’t think NU can aim for the presidency, which will be in the hands of the big parties like PDI-P and Golkar. At best, we can be No. 2.’

His pitch to presidential aspirants to go on a joint ticket with him is grounded in a simple reason: the nationwide network of NU-linked pesantren, or Islamic boarding schools, is too significant a voter base to ignore.

He refuses to be drawn into whom he wants to team up with.

He says: ‘It is too early to take sides now. We need to see the results of the parliamentary election before deciding. In principle, we will support a leader who can bring Indonesia out of its crisis.’

Probe deeper and one discovers that his ideological leanings are closest with incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri.

His political views, he reveals, were shaped not just by a core group of religious clerics who educated him in the NU heartland of Tuban in East Java, where he was born.

He is also guided by the teachings of Sukarno, Ms Megawati’s father and Indonesia’s first president.

Mr Hasyim wants the next government to be a combination of three groups: secular nationalists, Islamic moderates and the military that he says will be critical for a peaceful transition of power.

‘This is the best scenario for stability in Indonesia,’ he says. For practical reasons, he would want to work with Ms Megawati.

He has done his math.

‘It is an alliance that will reap the most votes,’ he says. ‘I can say confidently that together we can secure 65 per cent of the votes in the first round of the election.

‘If the NU were to go with a Golkar candidate, we might get no more than 55 per cent.’

He notes that despite all the criticism against Ms Megawati, the past two years of her rule had brought a semblance of much-needed stability to Indonesia.

But more needed to be done, especially in fighting corruption and restoring peace to strife-prone regions such as Aceh, Poso and Papua.

And as vice-president, he would want to be dealing with such problems.

In one of those rare moments during the 45-minute interview in his office when he removes that Javanese mask of inscrutability, he says: ‘Hamzah Haz has done very little as Megawati’s deputy because he has no power.

‘If I take on this job, I want a clearly defined role. I will reject a position that will force me to remain on the sidelines.’

Tough talk. But can Mr Hasyim obtain the vice-president’s post in the first place?

At least three factors could be crucial here.

The first is in his favour – support from key political parties. It is no secret that both the PDI-P and Golkar are courting him as a possible deputy – along with a few others – if both parties slug it out for the presidency.

Ms Megawati’s husband Taufik Kiemas is known to have extended his vast patronage network to East Java to win over the NU ground.

And by making a trip to Malang in East Java over the weekend to meet Mr Hasyim, the President sent a clear signal that he is one of three candidates the palace is seeking to court as her running mate ahead of the presidential election.

A presidential confidante told The Straits Times: ‘Ibu Mega is a nationalist Muslim. She needs to team up with a Muslim nationalist to make it a winning combination. Hasyim is someone who can draw support for us from the Muslim ground.’

The other two on the list are Golkar’s Jusuf Kalla and Education Minister Malik Fajar of Muhammadiyah, the second-largest Muslim group in the country.

The timing for the visit comes just days after the Supreme Court exonerated Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung of corruption charges. Some believe that Ms Megawati’s Malang trip is also a subtle message to Golkar and Mr Abdurrahman’s PKB that the Indonesian leader is keeping her options open.

Mr Hasyim is her shield against them.

Clearly, the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) prefers a coalition with Golkar. But there are creeping concerns in the President’s inner circle that Mr Akbar’s acquittal could push him to go for broke.

Golkar is also trying to get close to Mr Hasyim. Mr Akbar explains: ‘Hasyim is important for both Golkar and PDI-P because he carries the Muslim vote. He will bring along with him millions of votes that could ultimately swing the balance to whichever candidate he supports.’

Mr Hasyim’s moderate image as an Islamic leader has won him friends at home and abroad.

His daily schedule is full of meetings with foreign diplomats.

And he has made it a point over the past year to travel to the United States, Britain and Australia to show ‘the friendly face of Islam’ in Indonesia.

The third factor – support from the PKB – might prove to be his Achilles Heel.

Mr Hasyim has the backing of most of the NU provincial chapters to be vice-president. But he has yet to find a party that could sponsor his candidacy.

In the past, he had said that he would accept the nomination only if he received the support of the PKB. But the party created by NU clerics in 1998 has its own plans in backing his nemesis Abdurrahman for the presidency.

He leans forward and reaches for another kurma – his fifth and last – when confronted with the question posed at the start of the interview: Can he do it without the PKB’s backing?

His response is cavalier: ‘All I need is for Megawati or any other presidential contender to invite me to be a running mate. It is so simple. I don’t need to be sanctioned by the PKB or any other party to be vice-president.’

But it is hard for him to ignore the PKB because it is the party that is meant to represent NU’s interest on the political stage.

In 1999, it secured about seven million votes in East Java alone, where the bulk of NU supporters are based. The province contributed 24 of the 51 seats the PKB eventually won.

There is no guarantee that Mr Hasyim can capture the NU ground if he goes it alone.

The votes will split, given that parties such as the PKB and the Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP) are also drawing support from the country’s largest grassroots organisation.

That would make him less appealing for Ms Megawati or any other presidential candidate hoping to maximise the vote count.

Presented with this scenario, the NU leader moderates his stand: ‘As I said, I don’t necessarily need the PKB. But it will be good if it can support me. We will wait and see.’

At the heart of this problem is his relationship with Mr Abdurrahman. Mr Hasyim had a falling out with the former Indonesian leader in 2001 by refusing to back his calls for an emergency decree.

Instead, at the height of the crisis then, he pledged his support for then vice-president Megawati. Privately, he is hoping to repair his ties with Mr Abdurrahman even if he dismisses their occasional verbal skirmishes as ‘just differences of opinion’.

The NU chairman is likely to wait and see which way things are moving before taking that jump.

He is not short of choices. Both Golkar and especially PDI-P are sweet options – as sweet as that kurma he loves.

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