Candidates scramble to court NU

Presidential contenders see its endorsement as ticket to victory

NEWS ANALYSIS

What is the most attractive catch for presidential contenders in Indonesia today? Answer: The 40 million votes of the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU).

In a battle for numbers, the NU – together with other Muslim-based outfits – may well prove to be the decisive swing factor that could shift the political balance in favour of any one candidate.

None of the five aspirants and their running mates in the July 5 election is likely to command an NU majority. But this has not stopped them from jostling to capture the predominant share.

Nearly every presidential ticket features a candidate with links to the country’s largest Muslim organisation.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri has joined forces with its chairman, Mr Hasyim Muzadi. Her rival Mr Wiranto has secured the backing of Mr Solahuddin Wahid, the younger brother of former president Abdurrahman Wahid, the chief patron of the Nation Awakening Party (PKB) and a key NU elder.

Presidential front runner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has turned to South Sulawesi-born businessman Jusuf Kalla, and not just because of his links to the outer regions.

Mr Jusuf also has ties to the NU. His father, the late Achmad Kalla, was elected as a parliamentary member from the NU party in the 1955 election.

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

East Java, NU’s home base, is now everyone’s favourite hunting ground.

Over the weekend, the big guns and their supporters were in a blitzkrieg pre-election safari in the region.

Former military commander Wiranto attended a mass prayer at a religious boarding school in the Buduran district, where he also met Mr Abdurrahman for the first time since the PKB endorsed the candidacy of the retired general. Mr Solahuddin was in Pasuruan to get the backing of Mr Habib Abdurrahman Assegaf, the chairman of the hardline Islamic Defender’s Front.

NU leader Hasyim attended a ceremony for the opening of a new office for his organisation in Surabaya, where he donated one billion rupiah (S$183,300) towards the 12 billion rupiah project.

Ms Megawati sent her daughter Puan Maharani to Jombang to visit the influential Chasbullah Bahrul Ulum Islamic boarding school, where she called on members to support the 55-year-old leader.

On paper, Mr Wiranto has the best chance of garnering most of the NU votes. He has the backing of the ‘blue blood’ brothers in the organisation. Mr Abdurrahman, in particular, still wields enormous influence in the NU.

But NU members traditionally do not vote in a single block. Their votes are likely to be parcelled out, especially in the first round. Part of the votes could go to Mr Hasyim, Mr Bambang and, to a lesser extent, Mr Hamzah.

A recent survey by the International Foundation for Electoral System (IFES) sheds some light on the different shades of support in the NU.

IFES found Mr Bambang to be the most popular in NU. Mr Hasyim, and for that matter Mr Abdurrahman and Mr Wiranto, were ranked far behind in the approval ratings.

But popularity might count for little in the end. Given NU’s paternalistic culture, voting will be determined largely by clerics, several of whom might have cut deals with candidates who are their financial patrons.

The scenario would be more straightforward if there is a September run-off. The NU and PKB will almost certainly close ranks behind a single candidate – either Mr Wiranto or another contender if the former Suharto adjutant does not make it to the second stage.

The NU will be crucial in tipping the balance in favour of its candidate. It could draw other Muslim outfits, such as the 30-million strong Muhammadiyah, along in the process if it can secure political concessions and Cabinet posts in any new government.

The Muslim swing vote will be crucial in pushing any candidate first past the post. That is why the election campaign that begins today will see the main battles being fought in the NU heartland.

The NU vote is the ticket to victory.

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