Nahdlatul Ulama versus Jokowi: The NU Normal?

The Nahdlatul Ulama has previously thrown its full support behind the government of Joko Widodo. Its recent criticism of the president’s decision to press on with regional polls and the Omnibus Law suggests a parting of ways.

A student holds a sign that reads ‘the motherland is on stand up comedy’ during the second day of a three-day-strike in Tangerang by labourers against a government omnibus bill on job creation, on 7 October 2020. (Photo: Fajrin Raharjo, AFP)
Ahmad Najib Burhani

Ahmad Najib Burhani

19 October 2020

Since Joko Widodo (Jokowi) announced his cabinet on 23 October 2019, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) has slowly distanced itself from the president. This is partly out of disappointment for not being given positions in the cabinet. After throwing their full support behind Jokowi to win the 2019 presidential election, they had expected that Jokowi would appoint one of NU’s cadres to become the Minister of Religious Affairs. Instead, Jokowi picked Fachrul Razi, a military-linked personality, to the position.

After the announcement, the statements of NU leaders, such as Said Agil Siradj, displayed a mix of despair, indifference and nonchalance toward what Jokowi will do in his second term, including the project of eradicating radicalism and terrorism. Such attitudes go against the nature of the NU – it would be unthinkable for NU to be ignorant of radicalism, particularly the strain influenced by the ideology of Salafi-Wahabism. After all, one of the reasons for the establishment and existence of the NU is to oppose the spread of Wahhabism. It could be interpreted from the statements that NU leaders will not work again with Jokowi as they have done previously.

To compound matters, NU’s relationship with the Jokowi government has taken another dive, particularly with the latter’s controversial policy on regional elections (Pilkada) and the Omnibus Law on Job Creation (Undang-Undang Cipta Kerja). NU has taken it upon itself to challenge the government on the two issues.

On the regional elections, NU stands on firm ground. The number of Covid-19 deaths has exceeded 11,000, yet the government has decided to press on with polls scheduled for 9 December 2020. The government was actually overwhelmed by this pandemic. It was the help of the Muslim organisations like the NU that lessened the burden of the government in mitigating the pandemic. These mass organisations pulled out all the stops to help the government in the Covid-19 fight. They issued fatwas guiding their followers to follow health protocols and avoid congregational rituals. They converted their hospitals to treat Covid-19 cases and switched almost all their activities into humanitarian activities for mitigating the effects of the pandemic.

Initially, the elections were scheduled to be held in September 2020. The government then rescheduled the polls to December, based on the assumption that the pandemic would be over by the end of this year. The assumption appears to be based more on hope than empirical fact. The government’s persistence in pressing ahead with the elections has made some people furious. Despite the president’s rhetoric that people’s lives are more important than politics and the economy, the conduct of polls will only lead to the congregating of crowds and a contingent lack of social distancing. Some people, like Muslim scholar Azyumardi Azra, argue that the government is not considerate enough and has compromised the lives of the people.

Responding to the government’s persistence in holding the regional elections in December, the NU issued an official statement on 20 September. It asked the government and the General Election Commission to postpone the elections until the health crisis has abated. Even with strict health protocols, the avoidance of crowds would be difficult.

After its brief dalliance with the Jokowi government, it could be said that NU has returned to its long-standing roots as a civil society organisation.

Before the dust had settled on the polls issue, the government stoked another controversy by passing the Omnibus Law on 5 October. Although the law was opposed by various groups, the government did not back down. Azyumardi Azra argues that the process of passing the law was flawed and scandalous, given that it breached the traditional democratic process and the final draft was not accessible to the public a week after being passed in parliament. The law revises more than 77 laws, including a clause on shari’a banking. The government’s argument is that the law would promote foreign investment and boost Indonesia’s sluggish economic development.

On 8 October, NU issued an official statement, saying it “regretted” that the law was “hasty, closed” and failed to address public aspirations. The passage of such a wide-reaching law required patience, caution and “broad stakeholder participation”, NU said. To force its passage while the country is in the throes of the pandemic is a “bad form of state practice”.

NU’s challenge to the government on the two issues constitutes the tip of the iceberg. Previously, NU leaders were critical about the revision of the Law on Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and the deliberation on the bill on Pancasila Ideology Guidelines (HIP). One thing is clear: NU stalwarts in government do not insulate it from broadsides from the mass Muslim organisation (Ma’ruf Amin, former supreme leader of NU, is now the vice president of Indonesia and Zainut Tauhid, also from NU, is the vice minister of religion).

What are the reasons behind NU’s political stance despite the alleged disappointment of some of its leaders on Jokowi’s decision on the minister of religious affairs? It is known that NU has always had more than one faction. Besides the faction in its central leadership, there is a faction of the National Awakening Party (PKB) and a faction linked to the United Development Party (PPP). There are even factions from various pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools). Moreover, NU is essentially a civil society organisation that constitutes another force in Indonesia’s robust democracy. After its brief dalliance with the Jokowi government, it could be said that NU has returned to its long-standing roots as a civil society organisation.

Dr Ahmad Najib Burhani is Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Research Professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/163

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