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## date : 04.02.95
Most of the country was asleep as the last votes were counted. It was 3 a.m., but every time Abdurrahman Wahid's name was called out by the election commission young voices would respond with the spontaneous shout of "Okay!" In the great hall where 2,000 delegates from across Indonesia were gathered, there were scenes of joy and celebration as the winner of the chairmanship of the Nahdlatul Ulama was announced. One young delegate embraced the man beside him crying, "The NU has not sold out!" Wahid, one of the government's most outspoken critics, had been elected head of the nation's biggest Muslim organization for the third time running. A great roar of "Allahu Akbar!" (God is great!) split the night.
Wahid's victory was no small feat, and it said much about political currents in Indonesia amid the endless speculation over how long President Suharto will remain in office. Although the NU is not a political organization, Muslims have strong influence in a nation where some 87% of the 193 million people follow Islam, at least nominally. Many among them would like to see that influence grow. The NU has at least one strong rival in that arena. But there is no doubting now that within the organization, the NU's king is Wahid, known by his affectionate nickname "Gus [good] Dur."
In the hall in Tasikmalaya, West Java, young members of the Banser, the NU's security force, took to the stage to dance and sing. Cries of "Long live Gus Dur!" resounded through the chamber as the winning candidate entered. Cheered like a heavyweight champion, Wahid took his time making his way to the stage. Once there he fell to his knees, concentrated in prayer.
Wahid won by the narrow margin of 174 to 142 votes. The fact that the last of his opponents, businessman Abu Hasan, had managed to rack up such a total showed the strength of the forces ranged against Wahid: effectively, the might of the Indonesian government. Delegates heading to the 29th conference were given "instructions" on who to vote for. Members of the West Java branch were summoned to the military command in provincial capital Bandung and told to cast ballots for any candidate besides Wahid. Suharto made his preference clear at the opening ceremony. Wahid was not invited on stage with the president for the traditional drum-beating. Another ulama (Islamic scholar), Ilyas Ruhiyat, sat in the spotlights while Wahid was relegated to the third row.
Given the extent of the behind-the-scenes lobbying, his re-election amounted to a show of defiance. "There is a manifestation here of independence and recognition of Gus Dur as a national figure," says Rustam Ibrahim, director of the Institute for Socio-Economic Research, Assessment and Development in Jakarta. "They know he is controversial and very critical of the government. They still chose him. It means they support and agree with his policies."
In Indonesia such challenges are rare. Political conferences and mass rallies are usually pre-planned rituals. Speeches are vetted and spontaneity unusual. While the government had for a time encouraged more "openness," the policy effectively ended with the officially ordered closure of the newsweeklies Tempo, Editor and De Tik earlier this year.
Even so, NU delegates subjected a parade of government ministers on stage to unusually tough questioning. Defense Minister Edi Sudrajat, for instance, was asked if the army was involved in alcohol smuggling. After a torrent of criticism, State Secretary Murdiono was forced to apologize privately to Wahid, admitting there were "mistakes in protocol" at the opening ceremony. Prominent lawyer Mulya Lubis, co-founder with Wahid of the secular Forum Demokrasi, cautions that the NU rank-and-file does not necessarily share all of Wahid's liberal political views. "But it is a critical organization that tries to use any possible means to pressure the government to make room for change," he says. "Yes, they are traditional, in some respects they are conservative, but they are also democratic. The culture of resistance is there."
Founded in Java in 1926 by Wahid's charismatic grandfather, the NU now boasts some 36 million members. It brings together ulama, intellectuals and laymen. The organization's backbone is 6,500 pesantren, or religious schools, spread all over Indonesia, with the majority in Java. Wahid has led the group since 1984, when it quit the Muslim political party, the PPP, saying it wanted to return to its 1926 pledge against involvement in politics. Instead it would concentrate on social and religious activities. Despite Wahid's own overtly political statements, the organization has avoided taking sides with any grouping, including the ruling Golkar party.
Although there are other Muslim organizations, the NU's key rival as a power-broker is the Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association. ICMI is backed by powerful Research and Technology Minister B.J. Habibie, a close associate of Suharto's and a contender for the succession. When ICMI was formed in 1990 it invited Wahid to join. He refused. Ever since, Wahid and Habibie have been at loggerheads.
The hostility was evident at the NU meeting. Thousands of copies of the ICMI-backed daily Republika were shipped to the congress, where it consistently reported that Wahid was losing. It also published an interview with Lt.-Gen. Hartono, powerful head of the military's socio-political unit, describing all candidates as "capable" except Wahid. According to Republika editor Parni Hadi, "no newspaper has been critical enough of Gus Dur."
Din Syamsuddin, an ICMI advisory council member and part of Golkar's central board, says many Muslims back Habibie and ICMI because they feel Christian technocrats were too influential in government for too long. "We ask for a proportional role in accord with our demographic presence," he says. To Rustam Ibrahim, Suharto's decision to align himself with Islam at the end of the 1980s "coincided with the desires of the people. Now there is a feeling that ICMI has given Muslims a role."
While ICMI has done much in promoting education and research posts for young Muslims, it is also widely seen as a political vehicle for Habibie and his supporters who hold high-level positions throughout the bureaucracy. Admits Nurcholis Majid, head of Jakarta's Paramedina Institute and a co-founder of ICMI: "Because of the dominance of Habibie's personality, ICMI has become dependent on his life force." Given the high-level backing, Syamsuddin asks: "Are we the horse or the rider? It's difficult to conclude." But the more important point, he says, is that fulfilling Muslim aspirations "needs a political foundation."
Not everyone in Suharto's government is hostile to Wahid. Defense Minister Sudrajat made it clear he was not part of the group trying to oust Wahid. He and Murdiono are known to see the moderate NU leader as the best bet against a possible rise of politicized Islam in Indonesia's multireligious society.
But the NU's most significant role may come in the presidential succession. Wahid's stand against Habibie makes the NU a potent ally for the powerful mainstream military factions who continue to be suspicious of the technology minister's vaulting ambition. The organization's independence adds to its credibility, analysts note. King of the NU, Wahid could yet be a kingmaker for Indonesia.
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