Prabowo visited Muhammadiyah last week, asking the organisation to work together towards economic prosperity if he is to win the presidency. Head Din Syamsuddin reiterated Muhammadiyah's neutrality, but expressed appreciation for Prabowo's efforts. Photo credit:

Prabowo visited Muhammadiyah last week, asking the organisation to work together towards economic prosperity if he is to win the presidency. Head Din Syamsuddin reiterated Muhammadiyah’s neutrality, but expressed appreciation for Prabowo’s efforts. Photo credit:

“I pick Prabowo because he is a decisive (tegas) and courageous leader, with a clean vision, and has the ability to resolve this nation’s most pressing problems.”

“I like Prabowo because he wants to turn Indonesia into an Asian Tiger (Macan Asia) and he truly cares about ordinary people’s well-being.”

“I choose Prabowo as President because he is decisive and a very devout Muslim.”

These are the responses of young Muhammadiyah university students from Yogyakarta and Surabaya I interviewed in my study on the political aspirations of young Indonesian Muslims, explaining their support for Prabowo Subianto’s presidential candidacy.

Muhammadiyah is Indonesia’s second largest Islamic organization with approximately 30 million Indonesian Muslims claiming affiliation. It embraces a modernist theological orientation which is generally considered to be more conservative than those followed by the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization. While Muhammadiyah tends to have more orthodox interpretation of Islam than the NU, it has long embraced political moderation. Many (but not all) of its leaders and activists see a compatibility between Islamic teachings and Western political norms such as democracy, human rights, and religious tolerance.

When it comes to Indonesian politics, Muhammadiyah prides itself on two principles: political moderation and neutrality. According to Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University (UIN) Professor Bachtiar Effendy, Muhammadiyah follows the principles of amal ma’aruf nahi munkar (promoting good and preventing evil) in its dealings with the Indonesian bureaucrats and politicians trying to curry favor with the organization. It means that “Muhammadiyah is willing to cooperate with any parties seeking to improve the lives of its members, yet maintains a distance from them as well, in order to be able to effectively criticize them when we think they are wrong.”

An example of how this principle was applied in practice was during the New Order regime of the late General Suharto. While Muhammadiyah cooperated with the regime and many of its members occupied key positions within the Indonesian bureaucracy, by the end of the 1990s, as Suharto became more corrupt and repressive against political dissidents, Muhammadiyah leaders such as former chairman Amien Rais (1995-1998) became increasingly vocal in his criticism of the regime. Amien went on to become a leader of the pro-democracy Reformasi movement, which helped to overthrew the Suharto regime in May 1998. He also founded the National Mandate Party (PAN), which attracted many (but not all) Muhammadiyah members as its main constituency.

Given Muhammadiyah’s history of moderation, openness toward liberal ideas, and moral leadership shown by its leaders, one might be puzzled as to why so many young Muhammadiyah activists are supporting Prabowo, a retired Suharto-era lieutenant general with questionable human rights records and worryingly weak commitment to democracy. Surely Joko Widodo (Jokowi), who appears to genuinely shares these values is the better choice?

I argue that Muhammadiyah’s activists overwhelming support for Prabowo might be attributable to two factors. First, Amien Rais’ open support for Prabowo’s candidacy and his strong influence within Muhammadiyah. The second is the close relationship between PAN and Muhammadiyah’s youth wing under the leadership of Hatta Rajasa, Prabowo’s vice presidential running mate and PAN chairman.

In 1998,

The 2014 elections saw Amien Rais and Prabowo go from bitter enemies to campaign compatriots. Photo credit:

Amien and Prabowo were fierce opponents during the 1997/98 Reformasi struggle. In September 1998 he called for Prabowo to be tried “in a military court opened to the public, in order to find out who ordered Prabowo to execute the kidnapping”.

However, Amien supported Prabowo’s effort to become Indonesia’s president in 2009, when he stated that “Prabowo offers better and more interesting programs” compared to the other presidential contenders such as Megawati Soekarnoputri, Jusuf Kalla, and incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

In this election, he has actively campaigned on Prabowo’s behalf since September 2013, when he attacked Jokowi and compared his popularity to that of former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, who was elected “due to his massive popularity,” but was eventually impeached in January 2001.

Amien’s open support for Prabowo in this year’s election was evident at this year’s Tanwir meeting in Samarinda, where during a plenary session he came to the podium and made a passionate speech to support the former TNI general for his presidential bid. Amien ended the speech by chanting “Long Live Prabowo!!” (Hidup Prabowo) multiple times and then led the audience to sing a song that praised the presidential candidate.

Amien’s overt electioneering on behalf of Prabowo at the Tanwir was done without the consent of current Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin (his long-term rival), who reportedly was not pleased with the spectacle. However, it significantly boosted support for Prabowo among Tanwir attendees, especially among members of the organization’s central board (Pimpinan Pusat), many of whom still keep strong ties with the former chairman.

Prabowo’s support within Muhammadiyah was also bolstered by the fact that his protege, Hatta Rajasa, the current PAN chairman, was picked up by Prabowo as his vice presidential running mate. Hatta has an extensive network within the Muhammadiyah, especially among officials of the organization’s youth wing, Pemuda Muhammadiyah, and its university students’ wing, Ikatan Mahasiswa Muhammadiyah (IMM).

Hatta and these Muhammadiyah youth groups were not always this close. In August 2011, a group of IMM activists demanded Hatta’s resignation from his position as Coordinating Minister of Economic Affairs for his failure to “improve the Indonesian economy and improve the people’s welfare.” Rudi Ismawan, then IMM’s general secretary, also criticized Hatta for “trying to politicize the Muhammadiyah” through a shadowy advocacy group called Parra Indonesia.

However, in April 2013, senior activists from IMM, Pemuda Muhammadiyah, and a number of other youth affiliates, issued a joint declaration to support Hatta’s bid for the Indonesian presidency. According to internal Muhammadiyah sources, in the past few years Hatta had given significant financial and logistical support to these organizations and had supported the candidacy of youth activists who were loyal to him as chairmen of these organizations. Under their leadership, both Pemuda Muhammadiyah and IMM promptly gave their endorsement for the Prabowo-Hatta ticket, in spite of the official neutrality adopted by Muhammadiyah itself.

The strong support among the leaders of Muhammadiyah’s youth affiliates towards Prabowo filtered down to the rank-and-file members of these organizations at university campuses across Indonesia. This can be seen in a small survey I conducted among these Muhammadiyah activists in my May 2014 fieldwork, approximately two months before the presidential election. From a sample of 53 Muhammadiyah students, Prabowo was the choice of 40 percent of these students. Less than 5 percent of the students supported Jokowi’s candidacy, while 30 percent were still undecided at that time. Prabowo’s support is even stronger among male Muhammadiyah students. 45 percent supported him, 5 percent supported Jokowi’s vice presidential running mate Jusuf Kalla, but none of them were supporting Jokowi. 20 percent of male students were undecided.

IMM Palembang protested the organisation's declaration of support for Prabowo. Photo credit:

IMM Palembang protested the organisation’s declaration of support for Prabowo. The banner reads, “Come on, let’s be smart voters”. Photo credit:

Many of these students were attracted to Prabowo because of the image of him as a decisive (tegas) and courageous (pemberani) leader. Several students stated that their support for Prabowo was a reaction against 10 years of President Yudhoyono’s rule, which in their view was characterized by his indecisions, unwillingness to stand up against “foreign powers” (e.g., multinational mining companies, Malaysia in the Sipadan/Ligitan Islands border dispute, etc.), as well as corruption within his inner circle.

They hoped that a Prabowo presidency would bring in a stronger, more decisive president who would not make compromises with “vested interests,” a significant reduction in corruption, and a more assertive foreign policy in which Indonesia’s stature abroad will be respected instead of ridiculed by other countries.

The students tend to dismiss allegations of human rights violations and pro-democracy activists kidnapping conducted by Prabowo during his career as an army officer during the New Order regime. Some dismissed the allegations completely, saying that they were “false allegations promoted by his political opponents.”

Others were more circumvent, saying that “these allegations were probably not true. However, even if it was true, [Prabowo] did them under orders from his superiors, who were [TNI Chief] General Wiranto and President Suharto himself. They are the ones who should be held responsible for these crimes, not Prabowo.” The students seemed to have little understanding of the 1997/98 Reformasi protests and Prabowo’s role in the TNI’s attempt to crush them.

In many ways, the blame lies with Indonesia’s high school and university history books which fail to give nuance and balance to the origins of Indonesia’s pro-democracy movement in 1998. But also, Prabowo’s propaganda machinery was evident here as some students repeated word for word explanations issued by the Prabowo campaign to dismiss the allegations against him. The students’ overwhelming support for Prabowo might also indicate the effectiveness of the his strategy to court prominent Muhammadiyah figures such as Amien, Hatta, and senior Muhammadiyah youth leaders, as key supporters for his presidential bid.

To conclude, the Muhammadiyah case shows the importance of political networks, financial patronage, and savvy (but at times unethical) PR campaign, in understanding why Prabowo was able to capture the support of the majority of its key figures, rank-and-file members, and youth activists.

However, the aggressive mobilization of pro-Prabowo supporters to win support for his presidential candidacy, especially among its youth affiliates, might threaten Muhammadiyah’s long-standing reputation for political moderation and neutrality that the organization has promoted over the past few decades.

Muhammadiyah may also lose its credibility as one of Indonesia’s leading non-partisan civil society organization and its reputation as a defender of democracy, human rights, and religious tolerance for all Indonesians.

Alexander R. Arifianto is a Visiting Fellow with the Indonesian Studies Group, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore. His research on the political aspiration of Indonesian Muslim youth, will be published by the Institute in early 2015.