Adi Sasono : Can he be Indonesia’s next president?

INDONESIA’S Co-operatives Minister Adi Sasono is full of surprises.

His decision not to campaign for Golkar in this year’s general election disappointed his rivals in the ruling party, the Muslim constituency and even perhaps President B.J. Habibie.

But against a background of building up an independent support base using public funds and gaining political mileage for himself rather than the government, his announcement last week should not have surprised many.

He appears to be pursuing a very unorthodox political strategy – perhaps the strategy of someone who has given up on getting support from the real power holders in the country that is Golkar, the mainstream parties and the armed forces (Abri).

He is turning instead to fringe pressure groups like young Muslim students, radical Islamic organisations, cooperatives and small traders, many of whom are now planning to form a new party, Partai Daulat Rakyat, to which Mr Sasono is reportedly giving “moral support”.

But their backing for this 56-year-old Javanese politician is not guaranteed either.

Their constituency is highly contested by the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), National Awakening Party (PKB), National
Mandate Party (Pan) and Golkar itself.

On the surface then, Mr Sasono’s move suggests that he is in a weaker position than many believed.

He may be playing a one-round game only, using his position in a unelected government to pursue long-favoured political and economic policies.

PLAYING SMART?

BUT could he be smarter than his opponents think he is?

One theory making its rounds in the local media is that he could be distancing himself from Golkar as a tactical ploy to give his controversial wealth redistribution programme greater credibility.

He has been receiving a lot of flak for using his programme as a political tool for Golkar and Dr Habibie.

Presidential aide Dewi Fortuna Anwar believes this is the most compelling reason why he is not campaigning for Golkar.

“You can imagine how much money was donated through the Cooperatives Minister to help small businesses,” she noted in an interview with the weekly Gatra magazine.

“As a minister he will have to be on the field to monitor the loans. And as a party campaigner, he will also have to be in the field.”

She added: “What will people see from Adi Sasono and Golkar, money politics, right? That is what Adi Sasono wants to avoid.”

Mr Dawam Rahardjo of Pan goes a step further suggesting that by countering such perceptions, “Habibie will be off the target”. The President will emerge as the political beneficiary.

Mr Sasono’s relationship with the President is based more on mutual interests than on ideology.

Dr Habibie is using the one-time political activist to get nominal support from the Muslim constituency while Mr Sasono sees the German-trained engineer and Suharto protege as a stepping stone for high office in government.

The dynamics of that relationship has evolved over the last decade and intensified markedly after Dr Habibie’s ascendance to the presidency in May.

The stakes for the two were even higher.

SASONO AND HABIBIE

MR SASONO’S decision to join Golkar last year was very much predicated on defending the President’s interests which he did on at least two occasions.

In July last year, he joined forces with State Secretary Akbar Tandjung at the Golkar congress to thwart the challenge of Gen Edi Sudradjat and the more secular and anti-Habibie wing of the party.

That support was seen again in November during the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) when aides said he “fought hard to ensure that there would not be a constitutional coup d’etat against Habibie”.

He was one of the principal backers for the use of the armed civilian volunteers to safeguard the MPR session. In return, the President continued to pledge support for his populist-style economic programme.

The government has so far pumped 18 trillion rupiah into cooperatives and small businesses, and Mr Sasono told The Straits Times recently he expected another 20 trillion rupiah.

But that interdependent relationship is being tested against the backdrop of growing rapprochement between Dr Habibie and his military commander, General Wiranto.

Mr Sasono is no fan of Gen Wiranto and Abri sources say he has tried several times to persuade the President to sack the 51-year-old general from the Cabinet, particularly after the military’s bloody crackdown on student demonstrators in November.

Insiders say he was “upset” by the President’s decision to give in to Gen Wiranto’s demands for a revamp of the high command to weed out some of the Muslim-oriented generals and put in place officers who at one time served former president Suharto closely.

That perhaps proved to be the critical turning point in their relationship.

INDEPENDENT POLITICAL PLAYER

THERE are other connected problems.

There is disappointment that Dr Habibie has refused to countenance inquiries into the massacres of Muslims in Lampung and Tanjung Priok in the 1980s.

The President, who seems to have calculated that he cannot afford to meet all the demands of his Muslim supporters without risking the alienation of Abri, was also unwilling to release all Muslim prisoners convicted during the New Order period.

We get an insight into their new competitive relationship during Dr Habibie’s recent interview with the Central News Broadcasting Corporation (CNBC). Asked whether he saw Mr Sasono as likely to challenge him as president, he replied: “Adi Sasono… belongs to my team because I have asked him to be in my team. And before I became President, he was already in my team… and I think so what, if the people want Adi or whoever, they should get him.”

Linked with the changing relationship between the two, is Mr Sasono’s disillusionment with Golkar. His links with the party were never really founded on any raison d’etre except that it should serve a specific interest at a particular point in time.

He was never really at ease with the party.

As an executive member, he rarely showed up at party meetings. He also opposed some of the decisions taken by the party, in particular, the appointment of Mr Marzuki Darusman, head of the National Human Rights Commission, as Golkar leader in Parliament. He preferred the more Muslim-oriented Marwah Daud Ibrahim.

Aides say he has also grown sceptical of Golkar’s chances in the election after touring different parts of Indonesia and hearing grassroots sentiments against the party that is perceived as a New Order relic.

The theory that Mr Sasono’s half-hearted cop-out from the ruling party is an attempt to deflect criticism away from Golkar and Dr Habibie appears to be seriously flawed.

Altruism is never high on the priority list of an aspiring and ambitious politician whose supporters want him to be the country’s next President.

What more, Gatra quotes sources as saying that Dr Habibie was shocked when his once right hand man told him and Akbar Tandjung that he would back a new party.

A more convincing explanation then lies in his decision to be an independent political player rather than a mere party apparatchik. Mr Sasono may have decided that given Golkar’s liability and his difficulty in winning the President over, it is better for him to go it alone.

BROADENING HIS SUPPORT BASE

PARTAI Daulat Rakyat (PDR), which is expected to be formed next month, comprises several allies of Mr Sasono.

They include Mr Mohammad Jumhur Hidayat who heads of the Centre for Information and Development Studies (Cides), a think-tank of the Association of Muslim Intellectuals (Icmi). Several Icmi members are banking on Mr Sasono to be Indonesia’s fourth president.

Mr Hidayat says that the party aims to target the lower classes, in particular street vendors and small traders, long cultivated by Mr Sasono. He added that while Mr Sasono may not lead the party, he would give moral support – somewhat similar to the relationship between Mr Abdurrahman Wahid and the National Awakening Party (PKB).

Aides say that Mr Sasono’s main aim is to broaden his support base among the Muslim constituency.

Indeed, if one looks at the current configuration of Muslim parties that have sprouted up in the last few months, many like Partai Keadilan, Bulan Bintang and even Pan have links to Icmi and beyond that to the Masyumi party of the 1950s.

PDR and the lower-class constituency they hope to capture could be the last jigsaw puzzle in the political matrix that the Muslim modernists have mapped out ahead of the general election in June.

SASONO’S STRATEGY

IN THE upcoming polls, a candidate like Mr Sasono will appeal to the Islamic entrepreneurial pole, the lower class and religious groups in areas like North and West Sumatra, West Java and South Sulawesi – areas where other Muslim-oriented parties are vying for votes.

The aim may be to send a signal to the power holders that he is an important factor in the political equation and cannot beignored given his broad-based links to the Muslim constituency.

It is a calculated attempt to increase his bargaining power vis-a-vis Golkar and Dr Habibie as Indonesia moves into an era of coalition politics.

But the wisdom of his strategy to build up a support base is questionable if it means going alone.

In the evolving political structure, the centre of gravity still revolves around Golkar, the other mainstream parties like the United Development Party (PPP), PDI, PKB and Pan, and the military.

Indeed, Mr Sasono cannot survive politically without linking up with at least one of them. That could explain why he has yet to severe his links with Golkar altogether.

Lacking in political strength and especially allies in Abri, he will want to keep his options open until the country’s power configuration becomes clearer.

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