Presidential rivals fight for Muslim votes


Huge catchment of 70 million decisive in July 5 polls

The Muslim ground in Indonesia is turning into a major battlefield for votes.

All five contenders in the July 5 presidential race are seeking desperately to court the huge bloc of Muslim voters that may well tilt the political balance in favour of any one.

Islam is the major issue dominating discourse in the election campaign. Candidates are using it to shore up their support base and discredit major rivals.

Mudslinging almost always touches on religion. Presidential front runner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, for example, is portrayed as a ‘poor Muslim’ pandering to the interests of the United States.

His detractors accuse his Democrat Party of being led by Christians and his wife Kristiani Herrawati of being a Muslim convert.

Embattled President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has long sought to woo the Muslim camp, found herself pushed further into a corner after influential clerics from the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) issued a fatwa against her.

They banned followers from voting for a woman president. In yet another blow to her re-election chances, they issued a ruling supporting the candidacy of her rival Wiranto.

The aim is to ensure that neither rival wins a majority of a prized voter catchment of potentially 70 million votes drawn from members of two of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisations – the NU and Muhammadiyah.

The NU has the strongest pull, with its home base in East Java being a happy hunting ground for votes.

Indeed, nearly every presidential ticket features a candidate with links to the NU.

Ms Megawati 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 and an influential NU elder.

Mr Bambang has turned to South Sulawesi-born businessman Jusuf Kalla 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, is also a key NU member with a following drawn from his Muslim-based United Development Party.

National Assembly chairman Amien Rais, on the other hand, is turning to the 30-million-strong Muhammadiyah to garner votes from Muslim modernists.

In reality, the votes will split for two reasons.

Members of both organisations traditionally do not vote in a single block. Given the emergence of five players – each with a line to the NU and Muhammadiyah – support will go in different directions, especially in the first round.

More significantly, the Muslim camp is torn apart by personal ambition and deep ideological differences between the NU and Muhammadiyah. That leaves the camp in a major quandary.

There is no one figure that can lead them or forge a united platform in the face of a la carte-style politics in the presidential poll.

It has a domino effect on other Muslim groups and parties. For example, anxiety is running high in the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) over which presidential candidate to endorse.

The PKS, which claims to have 300,000 educated ‘modernist’ Muslims as members, scored a surprising seventh place in the April 5 legislative election contested by 24 parties. It won the majority of votes in Jakarta. It was divided between supporting Golkar Party’s Wiranto and Dr Amien.

But there is a greater possibility of coalescing in a possible run-off in September. Depending on the permutations in the final round, Muslim groups are likely to cut deals with one figure that can best represent their interests.

Ultimately, they will make up the crucial numbers in a first-past-the-post system.

The Muslim swing vote will be decisive in the election.

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