Countering the Communist Imaginary: The Role of Nahdlatul Ulama in Indonesia's 2014 and 2019 Presidential Elections.

AuthorWadipalapa, Rendy

The article examines the significant role of Nahdlatul Ulama (The Revival of the Islamic Scholars, NU), which claims to be the largest Islamic organization in Indonesia, in defending presidential candidate Joko Widodo (fokowi) from allegations that he was secretly a communist. Historically, NU has been one of the main drivers of the "communist imaginary" in Indonesia, promoting the idea that communism is a "latent threat" to the country. However, in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections, NU endorsed fokowi and sought instead to debunk the communist imaginary. Based on elite interviews and documentary research, this article argues that NU's decision was based on its brokerage relationship with the fokowi camp. In return for mobilizing both its vast membership and institutional networks to mitigate the weaponization of the communist imaginary against fokowi, NU was able to secure for itself key government and bureaucratic offices that would strengthen its political influence in Indonesia.

Keywords: Indonesia, Islam, communist, elections, Nahdlatul Ulama.

This article examines the role of the Nahdlatul Ulama (The Revival of the Islamic Scholars, NU) in mitigating accusations that the 2014 and 2019 presidential contender Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) was a "communist candidate" and a member of the banned Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). It examines how NU was able to play the role of a central broker to counter the disinformation campaign against Jokowi, who faced retired general Prabowo Subianto in both presidential contests.

The falsehoods against Jokowi stem from what this author calls the "communist imaginary", which is rooted in the public memory and trauma of the violent anti-communist purge of 1965-66. The concept of an "imaginary" refers to the various ways in which people envision themselves, their cultural values and myths, and how they perceive threats or anxieties as a result of their historical experiences. (1) The imaginary of the PKI's continued presence and imminent threat to Indonesian society might not be surprising. Scholars have identified, for instance, the all-out propaganda campaign under President Suharto's New Order regime as a decisive factor in shaping contemporary paranoia regarding a communist revival in the country. (2) The New Order was instrumental in cultivating and entrenching--through monuments, books, school curricula and state-sponsored movies--the narrative of the PKI as a bahaya laten ("latent threat"). (3) The communist imaginary provides fertile ground for fabrication--especially in electoral settings--as partial facts and myths are twisted to advance biased political narratives. As such, the aforementioned accusations against Jokowi in the 2014 and 2019 presidential contests should be understood as the products of a partisan attempt to selectively manipulate certain historical facts about Indonesian communism in people's memory, or, to put it another way, the weaponization of the communist imaginary.

The weaponization of the communist imaginary against Jokowi posed a particularly unique challenge to NU, which had to reconcile its support for Jokowi and its ideological commitment and historical legacy as a staunchly anti-communist movement. Several studies have identified NU as an active perpetrator of the 1965-66 mass killings, which included supporting the military's anti-communist operations and murdering suspected communists in their localities. (4) For many years thereafter, NU defended its role in the killings and stoked fears of a possible communist revival, thus co-producing and cementing the narrative of the PKI as a "latent threat" and sustaining the communist imaginary. As such, in defending Jokowi, NU effectively shifted from engaging in the rhetoric of a communist revival to denying that the threat existed. Significantly, several notable NU figures, who are known for their anti-communist views, either maintained their silence or even participated in NU's efforts to rebut the communist imaginary during the elections. How is this remarkable shift to be understood?

I argue that NU's decision to counter the communist imaginary was not an ideological re-orientation, but taken so that it could play a brokerage role for the Jokowi camp. In return for mobilizing both its vast membership and institutional networks to mitigate the weaponization of the communist imaginary against Jokowi, NU was able to secure for itself key government and bureaucratic offices that would strengthen its political influence and position in Indonesia. In the remainder of this article, I examine NU's political history and its anti-communist orientation to contextualize the organization's involvement in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections. I then discuss the critical function that NU played in Jokowi's campaign, especially in countering the use of the communist imaginary against him. Thereafter, I analyse the idea of NU as an institutional broker in Indonesian politics while drawing some implications about its role in the two presidential elections.

NU's Anti-Communist Politics and its Role in Presidential Politics in the Post-New Order Era

NU, which commands the loyalty of supposedly 80 million adherents [as of 2016), (5) professes an official policy of political neutrality. Adopted at NU's Congress in 1984, the policy of "Kembali ke Khittah" (Return to the Guidance) sought to distance the movement from politics and instead revive its original mission as a social organization. Hence, instead of pursuing political goals and seeking power in government, the policy commits NU to national development and morale-building of the ummah (people). Importantly, however, the Khittah did not prevent NU members from participating in politics in their personal capacity. As a result, as Robin Bush has argued, the Khittah's decision expanded the political space for NU elites, who could now flexibly channel their interests into the political vehicles of their choice, including those opposing Suharto's New Order. (6) At the same time, the Khittah directly rejuvenated NU's organizational structure by inspiring the emergence of several NU grassroots affiliates, such as NU's Institute for Research and Human Resources Development [Lakpesdam], the Institute for Islamic and

Social Studies (LKiS) and the Association for the Development of Islamic Boarding School and Society (P3M).

As numerous scholars have demonstrated, the Khittah did not extinguish NU's political relevance since its dense membership network remained politically active and served as one of the most influential sources of political capital during elections. (7) Suharto's downfall in 1998 provided more opportunities for NU to assert itself as a central political player--in a throwback to the movement's brief history as a political party in the 1950s. NU deeply cemented its political role in the post-New Order era following two momentous events: the establishment of the NU-affiliated National Awakening Party (PKB) in July 1998, and the election of Abdurrahman Wahid [NU chairperson, 1984-99) as Indonesia's fourth president in 1999. Moreover, the PKB has been a member of every governing coalition since direct presidential elections were introduced in 2004, signalling an intention to ensure that its interests are always represented in the ruling government.

Following Wahid's presidency, NU allowed its leaders to compete in subsequent presidential contests. The first direct presidential elections in 2004 were contested by four high-profile members of NU's elite: Salahuddin Wahid, Hasyim Muzadi and Jusuf Kalla were vice presidential nominees, while Hamzah Haz was a presidential candidate. NU's loose organizational structure meant that the movement's support was divided. The PKB endorsed the victorious Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono-Jusuf Kalla ticket. The Indonesian Nahdlatul Ummah United Party (PPNUI), established by several NU kyai (clerics) who opposed Abdurrahman Wahid, offered their backing to the Wiranto-Salahuddin Wahid pair. Meanwhile, the United Development Party (PPP), a political vehicle designed to cater to Muslim voters (including NU's political interests) during the New Order, supported the Hamzah Haz-Agum Gumelar candidacy. The 2004 election hence revealed not only NU's eagerness to regain control of the government, but also the fragmented and non-monolithic character of the organization. NU is a complex and loosely organized network which can accommodate internal political disagreements and divergences among its members, while the various NU-affiliated political parties are able to pursue different objectives. This framework provides the space for individual NU members to interpret contemporary political circumstances with flexibility and to act accordingly, including adapting and altering their initial stances immediately if necessary.

This insight is important in understanding NU's posture towards PKI and Indonesian communism. While antipathy towards communism is an undeniably pertinent element of NU's doctrine, it does not preclude some of the organization's offshoots or affiliates from adjusting their stances according to the political context. NU's anti-communist sentiment has been entrenched since its inception in 1926. Other than condemning the ideology for being atheistic and anti-Islamic, many NU leaders were also critical of the PKI's agenda of public ownership and land reform, describing them as contradictory to Muslim values. (8) (The latter issue provoked conflict in 1964-65 between PKI and the santri--students attending Islamic boarding schools--during which PKI occupied plots of land owned by NU's kyai.)

In politics, however, NU reached a slight, if uneasy, rapprochement with PKI under the "Nasakom" rubric, representing the constellation of NASionalism, Agama, KOMunisme (nationalism, religion and communism). President Sukarno introduced Nasakom in 1956 to reflect the ideological streams of the four...

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