In other words, I am referring to the nature of political party contention, and the contention between voters of the general constituency, in the recent 2019 campaign period. Unsurprisingly, attaining the endorsement of leadership figures within Indonesia’s two largest Islamic civil society organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, became key to the success of both Joko Widodo (the incumbent) and Prabowo Subianto’s presidential campaign efforts. Yet although Islamic civil society organizations in Indonesia have been influential in informing the political society sphere consistently across time, their relationship to the state has taken on many forms.

The roots of the major organizations can be traced back to the early 19th century, when a conservative modernist trend in Islam spurred the development of Muhammadiyah as its representative body in civil society. Nahdlatul Ulama, by contrast, was established in 1926 in defense of what would later be termed Islam Nusantara—a philosophy of Islamic adherence that champions plurality and variation in practice. However, with the onset of independence, the modernist Muhammadiyah organization, and other smaller organizations such as Persatuan Islam Indonesia, went on to partially form the base for the subsequent development of the modernist, Islamist Masyumi political party in 1945, which was in defiant opposition to Sukarno’s pluralist state structure. Although these civil society organizations partially structured a robustly oppositional strand in political society under Sukarno, by the onset of Suharto’s later ‘New Order’, it is evident that major Islamic civil society organizations began to loose their autonomy precipitously, as they came under the state’s increasing influence.

Under Suharto’s ‘New Order’, novel attempts were made to establish renewed state oversight. This, one could argue, was done through the establishment of the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI) in 1975 and through the later establishment of Indonesian Council of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) in 1990. Because leadership for these state-sponsored organizations was drawn heavily from the ranks of Islamic civil society, the state essentially absorbed key aspects of Islamic associational activity, as organizational leadership figures were left with ‘one foot in civil society and one foot in the state’. In this way, these civil society organizations saw a decline in the level of their true autonomy.

With this in mind, the positions of robust civil society organizations like Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah continued to play a role in influencing general sentiment among the masses, but under altered guidance. Indeed, the overarching positions of civil society organizations like NU and Muhammadiyah clearly did partially inform the structuring of political conflict amongst parties under the ‘New Order’ and over the course of the transformation back to legitimate party democracy (1998-2002)—notably, the positions of the United Development Party (PPP), Crescent Star Party (PBB), and National Awakening Party (PKB). It is clear that these political parties drew (and draw) on heuristics provided by the ideology of robust Islamic civil society organizations like NU, and Muhammadiyah. Indeed, as noted scholar Greg Fealy has discussed, NU played a direct role in forming the Islamic PKB party in 1998. Here it is vital to remember that, at the time, NU leadership figures also occupied positions in MUI. Such a point should hint at the ‘New Order’ state’s ability (or attempt) to permeate civil society and, subsequently, the underpinnings of political party sentiment. Historically, party elites have been obligated to fall in line with the milieu of civil society organizational sentiment. This is evident in looking at, for example, political alignments over the course of the last re-opening of the ‘Jakarta Charter Debate’ in 1998—the discussion of whether to amend Pancasila in order to include an explicit reference to ‘Islam’ instead of only ‘God’.

From 1998 to 2000, Islamic political party sentiment regarding the debate fluctuated. Although many point to the fact that PPP and PBB converged to advocate the amendment, a more in-depth look shows that there was significant party fragmentation amongst party leadership over the matter. This should be understood as one of the key reasons why the discussion faltered and closed in 2000 without an amendment to Pancasila. Arguably, the best way to reconcile this is to consider that, at the time, both Muhammadiyah and NU had come to adopt positions that supported the state’s quasi-secular or plural structure. It is true that Muhammadiyah began as an organization representing the conservative modernist trend in Islam in the early 20th century, but as the organization moves toward, and then into, the 21st century, it converged along a substantially more ‘liberal’, pluralist ideology, likely due in part to the Suharto administrations’ political maneuvers.

While it is important to consider this historical paradigm, the co-optation trend of the Suharto era has been altogether abandoned, and as Islamic civil society organizations are, again, realizing more robust autonomy outside of the state or political society sphere, their support may be increasingly ‘hard-won’ for politicians seeking endorsement—this is a natural progression, evidenced by trends in civil society affiliations across the globe.

President Widodo was eventually successful in garnering the support of NU, but his ability to maintain this alliance, dampening potential for Islamic opposition mobilization, will depend on his ability to maintain a continuous dynamic of dialogue and concessionary measures. Engaging in this activity may indeed help to foster broader socioeconomic and ethno-cultural alliances within Indonesia. Considering Subianto’s (who is still chairman of the Gerindra Party) continued opposition in the aftermath of the election reinforces this assertion—the former presidential candidate has sustained his attempts to align himself with various strands in Islamic civil society. According to The Jakarta Post, Subianto recently realigned himself with Dahnil Simanjuntak, who was a notable leader of Muhammadiyah’s youth wing. Simanjuntak served as Subianto’s spokesman during the campaign and is now the chairman’s official liaison in the post-election era.

In considering these dynamics, it is evident that, broadly, Islamic civil society organizations have done much to inform the structure of political conflict in Indonesia. In the immediate post-independence period, this meant the structuring of a robust political opposition (the Masyumi Party). Under Suharto’s ‘New Order’ and his potential infiltration of civil society strands, this meant limited opposition to his own political interests. In the period of democratic transition, the reinvigoration of the ideals associated with Islam Nusantara and the prospects for a renewed, relatively ‘liberal’ democracy meant that NU’s backing of PKB (a comparatively ‘moderate’ Islamic party) would ensure its continued success relative to that of PBB or PPP.

Moving to the present day, the sustained strength of NU and Muhammadiyah likely mean they will continue having a dampening effect on organizations such as the more radically conservative Front Pembela Islam (FPI). Yet their support for the continued paradigm of political, macroeconomic, and general nation-state development is necessary for President Widodo’s attempts to effectively govern. A shift toward Subianto, for example, would have far-reaching consequences in the sphere of political society, and perhaps beyond. Consequently, much attention should be paid to the state’s efforts to work with Islamic civil society as they continue to evolve in conjunction with their increasing autonomy.

About the author: Charles Baker recently graduated from Yale University with B.A. in Political Science, focusing primarily on Indonesia and the MENA region. He is currently finishing his MSc. in Political Sociology at The London School of Economics, where he devotes his time to studying Islamic politics, economic sociology, and the emerging global trend of populism. He also speaks Bahasa Indonesia.

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