Indonesian Islamic schools a campaign magnet

So-called 'pesantren' are seen as vote banks in the lead-up to a presidential election in April
Indonesian Islamic schools a campaign magnet

Gus Nuril Arifin Husein, with sunglasses, the founder of the Jakarta Soko Tunggal Islamic Boarding School says presidential candidates visit Islamic boarding schools to get moral support, not to form political alliances. (Photo by Konradus Epa/ucanews.com)

Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the end of October visited Islamic 'pesantren' boarding schools in populous East Java province as part of his presidential re-election campaign.

His vice-presidential running mate, Ma'ruf Amin, who is a former chairman of Indonesia's influential Islamic Ulema Council, visited other boarding schools in the province.

Meanwhile, rival presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto toured several boarding schools in Central Java ahead of the April election showdown.

Days before, Prabowo's vice-presidential pair, Sandiaga Solahudin Uno, travelled to boarding schools in West Java province.

Since the campaign officially kicked off Sept. 23, such Islamic schools have received a great deal of attention from aspiring candidates.

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Although election supervision officials have warned against campaigning in educational institutions, candidates argued that they were simply undertaking friendly visits rather than campaigning as such.

 

Vote getter

According to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, there are 28,961 Islamic boarding schools across Indonesia accommodating more than four million students, known as santri.

They are run by Islamic teachers affiliated with Nahdatul Ulama and Muhamadiyah, the largest Muslim organizations in Indonesia.

Although many of the students are too young to vote, political observers consider their influence to be significant, including on parents and other family members, said Ujang Komarudin, executive director of the Indonesia Political Review.

He said candidates clearly fathomed the electoral potential of the boarding schools' alumni network.

"Boarding schools' alumni have a stronger emotional bond than other types of educational institutions as they have lived together in the dormitory system for a long time," he said.

"This is a real mass base in politics."

Usep Ahyar, executive director of the pollster Populi Center, said boarding schools are seen as symbols of traditional Islamic society.

"By approaching them, candidates want to associate themselves closely to Islam," he said.

Ahyar added that exploiting school links was a way of candidates blunting accusations by political opponents that they are anti-Muslim and/or pro-communist.

Widodo, who is often accused of being anti-Islam and hostile to ulemas, has pledged to establish job training centers in boarding schools.

His running-mate Amin, who previously founded a boarding school, has promised to set up a new department to oversee all Islamic boarding schools.

 

Pros and cons

Among boarding schools, there are mixed reactions to the candidates' presence.

Gus Nuril Arifin Husein, 59, founder of the Jakarta Soko Tunggal Islamic Boarding School, said that visiting such schools was common.

He added that on these occasions, Muslim scholars had an opportunity to give advice on how politicians should lead according to moral Islamic principles.

Amin Maulana Budi Harjono, 55, founder of a boarding school in Central Java, said politicians dropping into such institutions to cement ties was welcome, but students should be left to make their own choices about who to vote for.

Ibam Lukman Nurdin, from a boarding school in West Java, said schools should distance themselves from partisan politics.

However, Komarudin, from the Indonesia Political Review, said it was no secret that various schools backed particular candidates.

"The only difference is that some people state it explicitly, while others do not," he said.

He gave an example of how some 400 Islamic teachers in September declared support for the Widodo-Amin election ticket.

Surely, candidates view boarding schools as potential vote winners.

"They are vote base camps that we must protect," said Hasto Kristiyanto, secretary of Widodo's campaign team.

Priyo Budi Santoso, from the Subianto-Uno campaign team, acknowledged having a similar agenda.

"One of our main goals is to get support from the pesantren," he said.

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