Two big Muslim groups staying out of politics

A rally in Bandung on Tuesday for Indonesia's biggest Islamic party, PKS. Voters became wary of the Islamic parties last year, after PKS' chief was found guilty of bribery and money-laundering in a beef import scheme.

JAKARTA - The two major Muslim organisations were once key players in Indonesian politics.

Both Muhammadiyah, formed in 1912, and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), formed in 1926, took part in electoral politics from the 1950s to the 1990s. They did this either through a political party or directly as a political party.

But the two organisations, with a combined membership of 70 million, are taking a back seat in next month's parliamentary elections and July's presidential polls. They have declared they will not be involved in either.

However, analysts say it is difficult for the two to disengage themselves from politics because they are mass-based organisations with a large number of constituents who can be sources of support for political parties.

"We are politically neutral and we encourage our members to be leaders and cadres in this upcoming election," Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin said in a statement. He added that members were free to be active in political parties and vote for whichever party they wished to.

A similar statement from NU, the larger of the two bodies, said although many of its members are spread among many political parties, "we want to remain neutral".

NU had operated as a political party in the 1950s, participating in the 1955 elections. Its political arm merged with other Islamic parties to form the United Development Party (PPP) in 1973. NU left the PPP in 1985 to return to its original roots as a social and religious organisation.

After the fall of strongman Suharto in 1998, then Muhammadiyah chairman Amien Rais set up National Mandate Party (PAN), while NU chairman Abdurrahman Wahid formed the National Awakening Party (PKB) as their respective political vehicles. Both are Islamic parties but their memberships are open to non-Muslims.

Muhammadiyah started cutting off links with PAN when Dr Din became chairman in 2005 and wanted the body to stay non-partisan. NU started to distance itself from PKB after it felt marginalised by the party under Abdurrahman.

An aide to the Muhammadiyah chairman, Mr Edy Kuscahyanto, told The Straits Times that leaders of all 12 political parties have visited the body to cement ties but "we remain firm that we stay out of politics as we are a social and religious organisation".

The movement declines to provide support even to PAN, whose members are from Muhammadiyah. The head of Muhammadiyah's youth wing Saled Partaonan Daulay is contesting under the PAN banner in North Sumatra.

Several other members too are contesting as candidates of secular parties such as Golkar.

NU is also not providing institutional support to PKB although it does not stop its members from supporting it. There have been cases where NU members contested against each other in regional polls that caused a split in NU.

Both bodies are finding it hard to stay away from politics as election candidates have come knocking on their doors to seek support.

In January, presidential contender Prabowo Subianto visited Muhammadiyah and NU. On March 20, Jakarta governor and Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle presidential candidate Joko Widodo visited Muhammadiyah and led noon prayers. In the evening, Mr Joko visited NU leader Kiai Mustofa Bisri in Yogyakarta. Dr Din had to pre-empt any speculation by telling reporters that the visit did not mean Muhammadiyah was supporting Mr Joko or that he would offer himself as Mr Joko's running mate.

Political analyst Philips Vermonte of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies said politicians visited the organisations to seek their "blessings" as they needed their members' support.

However, the organisations' leaders are keeping their distance from politicians and their parties because they do not want to be seen to be favouring anyone. They want to maintain access to whoever wins the elections, he said, because they need political support for their activities in areas such as education and welfare.

salim@sph.com.sg


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