President Susilo Yudhoyono’s recent meeting with two candidates contesting the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) chairmanship has drawn criticism from observers.
On Sunday, political analysts said Yudhoyono was attempting to intervene with the NU’s leadership,
the country’s largest Muslim organization, which is set to begin a national conference to elect its leader this week.
Yudhoyono met with Salahuddin “Gus Solah” Wahid on Friday and Said Agil Siradj on Saturday at his private residence in Cikeas, West Java.
Both Gus Solah and Said Agil are contesting for the top post in the NU, along with other candidates Masdar Farid Mas’udi, Ahmad Bagja, Slamet Effendy Yusuf, Ali Maschan Moesa and Ulil Absar Abdalla.
Despite the meetings, Yudhoyono is slated to open the six-day NU congress in Makassar, South Sulawesi, on Tuesday.
Political communications expert Effendi Gazali said if Yudhoyono had invited Said Agil and Gus Solah to his home, he could be accused of having tried to interfere with the internal political affairs of the Islamic organization. “But we have to verify it first. Who initiated the meeting?”
Said Agil said he was called by Yudhoyono’s aide to come to Cikeas for a breakfast function with the President on Saturday morning, to discuss the NU congress and his nomination. “Pak SBY said NU should maintain the spirit of nationhood, and work together with the government to solve the country’s problems,” Said said.
Gus Solah also said he was asked to meet Yudhoyono after Friday prayers for a similar purpose.
Gazali went on to say the separate meetings with Yudhoyono in Cikeas reflected a trend of people coming to the President to get approval or backing for their political ambitions.
Such practices, he added, were reminiscent of the Soeharto era. “Back in the old days, everything had to be approved by Soeharto,” Gazali said.
He said Said Agil’s move was a blunder, as the main issue to be discussed at the upcoming congress was how to get NU away from politics after being heavily involved in it following the downfall of Soeharto.
Prominent Muslim scholar Azyumardi Azra said the meetings with frontrunners in the NU race were politically important for the President as he had the interest of safeguarding his support from within the 40 million-strong NU.
Azyumardi said the NU had contributed many of the re-election votes for Yudhoyono in the 2009 presidential race.
Socio-political expert Fachry Ali said it would have been “naïve” for Yudhoyono not to accept Said Agil and Gus Solah if the two had wanted to meet him. “NU is a large organization with about 40 million members. This is more than the population of Malaysia or Australia. It is politically powerful,” he said.
Said’s move, he said, should be seen as a political gesture to win the support of NU members at the congress. “The fact that he was accepted by the President was a positive signal for him. But if there are other candidates wanting to meet the President, then I believe he would not decline.”