Thu, 12 Feb 2004

Muhammadiyah endorsement of Amien Rais regretted

Kurniawan Hari and A. Junaidi, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Criticism greeted the official support from the country's second largest Muslim organization Muhammadiyah for Amien Rais' presidential bid on Wednesday, with a political observer expressing fear that the move would jeopardize the moderate orientation of the organization.

Muhammadiyah deputy secretary Hajriyanto Y. Thohari said the decision to explicitly back Amien, the chairman of the National Mandate Party (PAN), would discourage democracy which was still in its early stages in the country.

"The decision is disturbing because Muhammadiyah members could be mobilized to vote based on sectarian reasons. It is undemocratic," Hajriyanto, who is also a House of Representatives legislator from Golkar Party told The Jakarta Post.

He said Muhammadiyah should have only provided criteria, instead of pointing to a figure. He added Amien would still receive support from Muhammadiyah members, but in a more appropriate manner, even if the organization only spelled out criteria.

Apart from criticizing the process, Hajriyanto said the maneuver of the Muhammadiyah was premature because the result of the general elections was not known yet.

He also chided Muhammadiyah for being partisan by naming Amien as the organization's preference for president.

"There should be an assessment whether Muhammadiyah's involvement in politics would benefit the organization's main goal of preaching," he said.

Muhammadiyah Chairman Ahmad Syafii Maarif said on Wednesday his organization supported Amien as the organization believed that he had a clear commitment to reform.

"While the commitment of other political leaders is not that clear, Amien has clearly demonstrated his commitment to reform," Syafii said.

Syafii added that Amien deserved support in exchange for his dedication to Muhammadiyah, which he chaired before turning to politics in 1998.

Separately, political expert from Airlangga University Daniel Sparringa shared the view that Muhammadiyah's backing of Amien's presidential bid would adversely affect the image of the organization, which has long been known for its neutrality.

"It's a surprise. Muhammadiyah will pay dearly for being partial," Daniel told the Post.

But unlike Hajriyanto, Daniel said the move would not promote sectarian politics as Muhammadiyah had long been recognized as a moderate organization that did not fight for sharia.

However, Daniel predicted the approval would not significantly increase votes for PAN or Amien since Muhammadiyah members were more rational and rarely devoted themselves to certain figures, but instead for the organization's values.

"Muhammadiyah is different from NU, whose followers will obey whatever their clerics propose," he said, referring to Nahdlatul Ulama, the country's largest Muslim organization.

NU has also urged its followers to vote for the National Awakening Party (PKB) and choose the party's presidential candidate Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid. PKB was founded by NU leaders in 1998.

Meanwhile, Muhammadiyah member and political expert Bachtiar Effendy defended the organization's move, saying it was not done in blind support for Amien but in recognition of his values and programs.

"Muhammadiyah members will choose Amien as his values and programs are considered the best," Bachtiar, who is also a political lecturer at Syarief Hidayatullah State Islamic University, told the Post.

However he suggested that Amien seek support from other societal groups, including minority groups, since support from Muhammadiyah alone would be insufficient to catapult him to the presidency.