Double blow for Mega’s election hopes

Nadhlatul Ulama clerics rule against choosing a woman as president; leaders issue edict to back Wiranto’s candidacy.

An influential group of clerics from Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation has banned its followers from voting for a woman president.

In yet another blow to incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri’s re-election chances, religious leaders from the 40-million-strong Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) issued an edict supporting the candidacy of one of her major rivals in the July 5 polls, retired general Wiranto.

The clerics, led by one of NU’s most respected figures, Mr Abdullah Faqih, who is closely linked to former president Abdurrahman Wahid, issued the ruling in the East Java town of Pasuruan on Thursday.

Mr Abdurrahman, who wields enormous influence in the NU, still holds a personal grudge against Ms Megawati for ousting him in 2001. Well-placed sources said he was consulted before the public declaration by the clerics.

Mr Abdullah justified their position by drawing on the tenets of Islamic law. ‘The syariah bans women from becoming leaders except in a state of emergency. But if Megawati is elected president, we will support her,’ he said.

The strategy for now, however, was to block her chances – a move that has angered the President’s running mate, Mr Hasyim Muzadi, who was recently suspended as NU chairman.

‘The fatwa violates what we had agreed before in our NU conference, to exclude prohibition against a female president,’ he said.

‘It is also inconsistent. It bans people from voting for a female candidate but will back her if she is elected.’

The palace game plan for the election has been to get a significant share of the NU votes to tip the political balance in favour of Ms Megawati. Mr Hasyim was seen as someone who would be able to draw votes to her camp, albeit not a significant number given that the NU vote would be split among several of the presidential hopefuls.

Some of her backers have cast doubts on the effect of such a ruling. A source in her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) said: ‘It will not have any bearing on her chances because we have received assurances from other clerics that they will support her. Abdurrahman Wahid is not all that strong.’

But such optimism appears misplaced if one looks at Indonesian politics in recent years.

Indeed, Ms Megawati lost out on the chance to become president in the 1999 National Assembly session after Muslim politicians conspired to block her by issuing a somewhat similar fatwa.

In a direct presidential election, it could have an even greater bearing especially if her rivals can sway the Muslim ground by attacking her religious credentials and invoking Islamic principles.

Political analyst Arbi Sanit of the University of Indonesia noted: ‘This is a potentially fatal blow for Megawati. The anti-Mega camp is growing by the day but losing the support of influential clerics could be very damaging to her and beneficial to her enemies.’

The fatwa certainly plays into the hands of Mr Wiranto and his running mate Solahuddin Wahid, the younger brother of Mr Abdurrahman.

While most doubt that the former military commander would be able to command an NU majority, the clerics’ ruling against Ms Megawati could increase his vote share and strengthen his chances for the presidency.

He can draw on the support of Golkar, the largest party in Parliament, and the Nation Awakening Party that is linked to the NU.

However, he still has to contend with the increasing popularity of his rival Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, another retired general.

Mr Arbi said: ‘It is a three-way fight but it is becoming evident that Megawati is facing serious problems that could leave her trailing the two generals.’

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