Whither Golkar?

Faced with a public backlash, Indonesia’s ruling Golkar party is finding the task of winning votes a trying affair in this election. While it may yet muster enough support to make a comeback through alliances with other parties, it has to contend first with growing rivalry within its ranks.

THE WRITING is on the wall for Indonesia’s ruling Golkar party. Literally.

Not far from the party’s central headquarters in west Jakarta, graffiti in blood-red ink is scrawled on a winding side wall in a housing estate festooned with bright yellow Golkar flags. It reads: “Golkar is a dog.”

That is not all. The last two weeks of election campaigning have seen acute manifestations of public vitriol in several parts of Indonesia against a party that was once the bastion of support for the Suharto regime.

Golkar flags have been burnt. Party floats have been vandalised. Supporters in their trademark yellow have been pelted with rocks and refuse. Even Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung and his wife were not spared.

The couple were forced to beat a hasty retreat in Jakarta recently, but not before casting aside the cheery yellow paraphernalia decorating their Pajero jeep.

Colour can divide in these times. But it is more than wearing yellow. The reasons for the hatred go much deeper.

Thirty years of corruption and political strangulation have built up such a reservoir of animosity that for many Indonesians smelling their first whiff of democracy, pledges of “Golkar Baru” or a New Golkar minus all its dirty tricks leave them unmoved.

To its detractors, the party is nothing but a New Order relic, a view justified more so now after it nominated incumbent, Dr B.J. Habibie, as its presidential candidate.

Some Golkar leaders, as a result of this backlash, have gone as far as to suggest that it is perhaps time to contemplate the future as an opposition party.

Division is rife in the party. Mr Suharto’s fall last May has made it a rump of its former self as emerging factional rivalries skew party strategy. There are two main camps in Golkar now, shaped by differing political interests and personal ambition.

The first is led by Mr Akbar and includes several leaders of the nationwide-linked Islamic university students’ group Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam (HMI) like Mr Ekky Syahruddin and Mr Chairul Azwar. Urban-based intellectuals like deputy chairman Marzuki Darusman are also in this camp.

It wants to break all links with the past, including to its former patron Suharto, and has adopted a harder line in cracking the whip against the former leader.

This has become increasingly evident in recent weeks with several of its members, most notably Mr Akbar, suggesting that Dr Habibie place Mr Suharto under house arrest and set up an independent commission to investigate his wealth.

If he failed to do so, it is said, Golkar would find it difficult to stick to an earlier decision to back him for the presidency. “There should not be any cover-ups,” Mr Akbar told The Straits Times. “Indonesians have the right to know if he is guilty. People are not convinced that Pak Habibie is doing enough to punish Suharto.

“If he continues with this stance, it will be very difficult for Golkar to support him because increasingly, we will continue to be seen as a pro status quo party.

“Increasingly, Dr Habibie will also become a liability for us. We will have no choice but to go for someone else.”

Such emotional outbursts are rare for an adept practitioner of politics like Mr Akbar. The 54-year-old soft-spoken Batak is anything but blunt in his demeanour, preferring instead to don a Javanese mask of inscrutability in the political arena. Up until the start of campaigning, he kept that pose and spoke only in coded language. Despite veiled ambitions for the top post, he tried hard not to portray himself as Dr Habibie’s competitor.

Why then the sudden change?

Party sources point to Dr Habibie’s “muscling in” at Golkar’s leadership meeting last month. They say he held Mr Akbar at “gunpoint” last month and threatened to cut off funds for Golkar’s rallies if he did not throw his weight behind him for the presidency.

Mr Akbar, who has only paper authority over Golkar, had no real choice but to give in to the rival – and more powerful – faction dominated by members of the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI).

Dr Habibie can turn to Cooperatives Minister Adi Sasono, Research and Technology Minister Rahadi Ramelan and advisers like Mr Jimmy Ashadliqy and Mr Baramuli to do his bidding.

If the President is caught in the trappings of power, so are his supporters who, as one Western diplomat points out, are “caught in a power trap Habibie created so that if he goes down, so will they”.

Indeed, his supporters have been working hard to tip the balance of power within Golkar in their favour.

They have been travelling to the different provinces to rally support for Dr Habibie. They have also been trying to court Abri by pledging to back its plans to increase territorial commands and offering guarantees that its business interests would be left untouched.

Obviously, such activities are being fuelled by money. Golkar politics is no different than it was under Mr Suharto: it is run by money. That is Dr Habibie’s biggest trump card against his rivals within and outside the party.

Mr Akbar’s response has been to raise the spectre of presidential re-nomination. And he upped the ante by sacking Habibie loyalist Sasono from the party executive board after a full-page advertisement appeared in the national daily Kompas portraying him as a presidential contender for the People’s Sovereign Party (PDR).

Conspiracy theorists argue that the advertisement, which several PDR leaders had no knowledge of, was a move by elements of the Akbar group to drive a wedge between Dr Habibie and Mr Sasono.

The aim was also to force the hand of the President to sack the 56-year-old Javanese politician, dubbed popularly by the media as “the most dangerous man in Indonesia” because of his controversial wealth redistribution programmes.

But there could be another explanation. Some analysts believe that the advertisement was a defensive move by Dr Habibie reacting to threats to his political survival.

The PDR, which was established by the Centre for Information and Development Studies, an ICMI think-tank, had two aims when it was set up in January this year with Mr Sasono’s “moral backing”.

One was to join forces with Golkar in a coalition with Dr Habibie as its man for the Number 1 post. If this failed and support from the Akbar faction was tenuous, it would gang up with other ICMI-linked modernist parties to prop up a Habibie presidency.

Some believe that the advertisement was aimed at getting votes for the PDR.

Mr Sasono is certainly not the most popular man in the country but he can count on the farmers, fishermen and small traders whom he had been giving subsidised loans to spearhead a populist-style economy.

Dr Habibie is widening his political safety net and turning to countervailing sources of power. Besides the threat of eviction from his party rivals, he might have also calculated that Golkar might not perform so spectacularly in the election. Golkar’s weakness is strength for the opposition parties.

Handicapped by internal rivalry and lacking clear policy foci, especially over the Suharto issue, the party has allowed other front-runners to gang up during the hustings.

The first tactical alliance was between the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-Struggle), the National Awakening Party (PKB) and the National Mandate Party (PAN). The other involved PAN, the United Development Party (PPP) and the Justice Party.

Mr Akbar concedes that both these alliances would hold together by the glue of a “common enemy” – Mr Suharto, and by extension, Golkar if it continues to “cling to the past”.

Some observers think each of the two alliances could be strong enough individually to form a parliamentary majority, blocking Golkar’s path to power. That would also mean Golkar would not have sufficient votes to re-nominate Dr Habibie for the presidency during the People’s Consultative Assembly in November.

But can the glue hold? Here the opposition’s weakness is Golkar’s strength.

PAN again is acting like a political maverick. There is disquiet over Dr Amien Rais’ decision to join forces with two alliances. He could be hedging his bets on one of them for a presidential ticket but it does not inspire confidence with leaders like Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri and Mr Abdurrahman Wahid.

Policy splits over critical issues like the military’s role in politics and PAN’s call for a federation would likely be stumbling blocks as would working together at grassroots level because of ideological differences.

The other flank is also problematic. The PPP and Justice Party are led by elements close to the Habibie administration. They could dump PAN and switch sides if the results are in Golkar’s favour.

Despite the huff and puff directed against Golkar, the ruling party appears confident of victory. Mr Akbar still believes it can get 40 per cent of the votes.

Is he being too optimistic? Maybe. But some think he is not too far off in suggesting it could win again.

The English-language daily, The Jakarta Post, in a strident editorial titled “Don’t write Golkar off” argues that: “The mood has switched from one of dismissal to one of dread that Golkar could extend its winning streak to seven consecutive polls, even with a heavily reduced share of the vote.”

Dr Hermawan Sulistyo of the Research Institute for Democracy and Peace said that Golkar would need only 25 per cent to strike its target. Through a coalition with other factions in the MPR, including the military and regional representatives, Dr Habibie could end up being President again.

With enormous financial resources to win the support of individuals as well as gain control of several television and radio stations, Golkar has access to the masses that the new parties can only dream of.

Its chief strength is in rural areas where 60 per cent of the votes lie. It will get trashed in the major cities like Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan but it could make up for it by getting support from places like Jambi, Bengkulu, West and Central Kalimantan, parts of West Java, South Sulawesi and eastern Indonesia generally.

Golkar is in no mood to lose. If it does, it would more likely be a result of internal factionalism.

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