NU leaders split over candidates


Intense jostling for the group’s huge voter base as the presidential election looms could result in its splintering.

An open and bitter conflict among leaders of the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) is threatening to tear apart Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation with the election for the presidency looming.

The NU, which offers a precious 40-million-strong voter base for any presidential aspirant, now faces the stark prospect of being split as its key members team up with rival contenders for the July 5 election.

Nearly all the presidential tickets so far feature candidates with NU links. President Megawati Sukarnoputri has already joined forces with NU chairman Hasyim Muzadi.

Her rival Wiranto, on the other hand, has secured the backing of Mr Solahuddin Wahid, the younger brother of former president Abdurrahman Wahid who wields enormous influence in the NU.

Presidential frontrunner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, realising the importance of the NU vote, has turned to South Sulawesi-born businessman Jusuf Kalla.

Mr Jusuf’s father, the late Achmad Kalla, was elected as a parliamentary member from the NU party in the 1955 poll.

Vice-President Hamzah Haz, who has thrown his hat into the presidential ring with retired general Agum Gumelar, is also a key NU member with a following drawn from his Muslim-based United Development Party.

Observers say that this will splinter the NU vote, with the possibility that in the next few weeks the organisation could descend into greater internal squabbling.

On Tuesday, the NU Youth group demanded that Mr Hasyim and Mr Solahuddin resign to keep the NU neutral as required by its khittah or principle.

Others have also joined the fray, including the influential Muslim leader Abdullah Faqih.

The khittah has its roots in the NU congress in 1984 in the East Java town of Situbondo. Its leaders pledged then to quit politics altogether and stick to its social and religious programmes.

But NU’s forays into politics are nothing new. After all, Mr Abdurrahman became president in 1999 when he was still NU chairman.

The current friction has less to do with principles than a clash of personalities.

Clearly, Mr Abdurrahman and the NU leader do not enjoy good relations. Both have made occasional barbed attacks against each other in public.

Mr Abdurrahman was angered even more when Mr Hasyim agreed to go with his arch enemy, President Megawati, whom he accused of launching an ‘unconstitutional coup’ to topple him from power in 2001.

Well-placed sources said that Mr Solahuddin was likely to quit the NU to take part in the presidential election, but there was little indication that Mr Hasyim would do the same.

‘Hasyim’s political capital comes from being NU chairman,’ said an NU insider. ‘It will be suicidal for him and Mega if he leaves the organisation. He won’t have anyone voting for him.’

Much will depend on how Mr Abdurrahman plays his cards. Despite creeping opposition from several NU clerics, he continues to set the agenda for the powerful organisation and who to back for the presidency.

His blessings, together with the backing of the NU-affiliated Nation Awakening Party, could hold the key to a winning ticket.

He talks tough about running for the presidency under the PKB banner. But strict rules on health requirements for candidates could bar him from taking part in the election.

In that scenario, he is likely to back his brother’s partnership with Mr Wiranto under a Golkar banner.

Theoretically, the bulk of the NU vote will go to the Wiranto-Solahuddin partnership if Mr Abdurrahman passes the order. But in reality, it is not going to be easy.

The votes will go in different directions given that presidential contenders are going to slug it out for the NU pie.

A recent survey by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) found that Mr Bambang was the most popular in NU. Mr Hasyim, and for that matter Mr Abdurrahman, were ranked far behind in the approval ratings.

It is open season for the NU vote.

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