East Java Looms as Key Battleground in Indonesian Presidential Contest

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East Java Looms as Key Battleground in Indonesian Presidential Contest

The country’s second-most populous province is also a stronghold of the country’s largest and most influential Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama.

East Java Looms as Key Battleground in Indonesian Presidential Contest

Indonesian presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto greets supporters during his campaign rally in Malang, East Java, Indonesia, Feb. 1, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Trisnadi

Around 9:30 p.m., during a campaign stop in Malang, East Java, the dancers began to be possessed by bull spirits. Islamic prayers were recited to open the ceremony. Then music blared from speakers, whips cracked, and incense was heavy in the air as the participants in the bantengan, pairs draped in cloth like a pantomime horse with a heavy bull mask at the front, cavort and clash horns. Looking on interestedly and chatting with the crowd was Mikail Baswedan, the son of Indonesian presidential candidate Anies Baswedan, and Rahma Arifa, the daughter of his running mate Muhaimin Iskandar.

Nearly 205 million voters are heading to the polls for the Indonesian presidential election on February 14. East Java, the country’s second largest province with 31 million voters, is a key electoral battleground. It is also the stronghold of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), an Islamic organization that counts some 40 million people as members and up to 150 million more as followers.

Founded nearly a century ago, NU has aimed to preserve local Islamic traditions against hardline modernist influences from the Middle East. It remains enormously influential, in Indonesia in general but in East Java in particular. In a bid to woo voters, all three presidential candidates are courting NU in the run-up to the upcoming election. And in the past two weeks, every candidate has made a point of passing through the province on their campaign.

Anies Baswedan, the former governor of Jakarta, chose as his running mate Muhaimin Iskandara, aka Cak Imin, who leads the National Awakening Party (PKB). Founded by former president and former NU chairman Abdurrahman Wahid (aka Gus Dur), the PKB has strong ties to both NU and East Java. Ganjar Pranowo, the former governor of Central Java, also chose an NU-associated running mate, Mahfud MD, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs.

Frontrunner Prabowo Subianto, the current minister of defense, is alone in not picking a vice presidential running mate affiliated with NU, choosing instead the son of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. But he has also assiduously courted influential NU leaders.

Yet translating the endorsement of NU officials into votes is a tricky process. “NU is too big to be conceptualized as one network,” said Seth Soderborg, an expert on Indonesian polling. “No one owns or controls the whole of it.” Indeed, leaders of different factions within NU have ended up backing different candidates.

Political fragmentation also means that the days are over when a few local NU leaders can simply tell their local community to support a particular candidate or risk going to hell, according to Professor Greg Fealy of the Australian National University, who has written about NU in depth. “They can’t do that now because their brother or uncle might be backing someone else, and they don’t want accuse them of being sinful.”

Anies, who is currently jockeying for second place and with it a potential run-off election, will be relying on Cak Imin and the PKB to deliver votes in East Java. The province is the party’s home turf, with the ulama in Islamic boarding schools, or pondok pesantren, often serving a trusted local leaders.

Abdussalam Shohib, commonly referred to as Gus Salam, is simultaneously the leader of Mambaul Maarif Islamic Boarding School, a former NU official, and a member of the Anies campaign team. While not a member of the PKB, he views himself as a follower of the party. And, perhaps more importantly, he is related to Cak Imin via a shared great-grandparent.

However, Gus Salam admits that the alliance between the Anies campaign and the PKB faces difficulties. Locals are often hostile toward Anies, whom they regard as a dangerous radical on religious issues. His 2017 gubernatorial campaign saw him ally with hardline Islamist groups after they accused his opponent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, of blasphemy.

NU eyes such groups with deep suspicion. Since independence, the organization  has often been close to the Indonesian state, which has encouraged NU to market itself as religiously moderate, well suited to the needs of a multi-confessional nation. Hardliners are frowned upon as threatening social peace and even national unity. And as devotees of syncretic local cultural and religious traditions that mix Islamic and pre-Islamic practices – be they bantengan bull dances or visits to saints’ tombs – NU followers bridle at the accusation that such practices somehow make them less Muslim.

The discomfort can flow both ways. Observing the bantengan, one Anies campaigner, a pious young man from Jakarta, admitted that while he’s interested, he would never join in. He worries that the practice is too close to shirq, or polytheism. Believing in djinns is fine, he explained, since they appear in the Quran – but it doesn’t do to pay them too much honor.

On paper, Ganjar Pranowo looks like he should be a strong candidate in East Java. His running mate Mahfud hails from the island of Madura in the province and, as mentioned, is widely seen as close to NU. Factions within NU associated with Gus Dur’s family, such as his daughter Yenny Wahid, have also sided with Ganjar.

On top of this, he is backed by the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which is also the dominant party in East Java. Its reputedly secular inclinations are no bar to NU followers. Indeed, surveys by Kompas last year found the PDI-P to be most popular party among NU voters.

In practice, polls show Ganjar on roughly level-pegging with Anies not just nationally but also within East Java. Part of the problem may be that Mahfud, while associated with NU, is not formally a member and does not control any major organizations associated with it. Similarly, the Gus Dur family faction is defined in part by its loss of control of the PKB to Cak Imin.

This also means that unlike Anies, Ganjar’s NU surrogates lack the same ready-made campaign machine of NU associates to draw on. Talking about Ganjar’s campaign strategy in the region, Aryo Seno Bagaskoro, an official spokesperson for the Ganjar team, focused on the PDI-P’s network, expressing confidence that local party cadres will turn out voters.

Yet the party is also facing a severe challenge in the form of Prabowo’s running-mate, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the eldest son of President Jokowi. Over the past decade, the PDI-P has benefitted from Jokowi’s enormous popularity. But while Jokowi initially seemed to endorse Ganjar as his preferred successor, his son’s entrance into the fray has been seen by many as a de facto endorsement of Prabowo, whom Jokowi defeated in both the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections.

Zahrul Azhar Asumta, aka Gus Hans, is the head of the Queen Al Azhar Darul Ulum pesantren and a member of the Golkar party, which is supporting Prabowo. When interviewed, he readily admitted that the Gibran factor has been key in pulling support toward Prabowo, and away from the PDI-P.

Prabowo, meanwhile, enjoys the advantage of not just Gibran but support from powerful NU leaders who, unlike Mahfud, command powerful organizational followings. Khofifah Parawasana, who endorsed Prabowo in January, is perhaps the most consequential figure as both governor of East Java and head of NU’s women’s wing, Muslimat.

“Muslimat is a phenomenal electoral machine,” said Fealy. “To have Khofifah working on Prabowo’s behalf in East Java that could make a considerable difference.” Recent public opinion polls put Prabowo well ahead of his rivals, with support nationally in the mid-40s, just shy of the 50 percent mark that he needs to reach to avoid a run-off election in June.

A boost in East Java could help tip him over the edge. Indeed, the first poll of the province since Khofifah’s endorsement shows a sharp rise in support for Prabowo, which seems to have come mainly from previously undecided voters.

Also apparently backing Prabowo is Saifullah Yusuf, aka Gus Ipul, the former vice governor of East Java, who ran against Khofifah for the governorship in 2019. Vitally, Gus Ipul serves not just as NU’s general secretary but also has close ties to Ansor, NU’s youth wing, whose status sits somewhere between the Scouts and a paramilitary organization.

It has even been reported that NU’s central body is throwing its weight behind Prabowo, despite the organization’s supposed neutrality. This has been sharply denied by General Chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf. However, statements he himself made in September last year affirming the organization’s closeness to Jokowi have been interpreted by many as an unsubtle hint that NU’s central body would back the president’s preferred nominee.

For Gus Hans, the situation is growing uncomfortable. “I’m happy that people are supporting Prabowo, but the organization must remain neutral,” he said. Yet, he clarified that neutral is not the same as apolitical. “Whoever wins they will of course need NU, because of our links to the people,” he added.