Abri may stick with Golkar after all

INDONESIAN ELECTION ’99

Reasons? The political party and the military have been intertwined inextricably for the last 30 years. There is also the fear of the unknown.

NEWS ANALYSIS

THE old adage that blood is thicker than water may be proven yet again in Indonesian politics.

Despite public pledges of neutrality, the Indonesian military (Abri) appears to be edging closer to backing its long-time ally, Golkar, and its presidential candidate.

Senior military sources said that even if Golkar finished behind the Indonesian Democratic Party-Perjuangan (Struggle), or PDI-P, in the political charts, Abri would go with the ruling party.

The reason is simple – fear of the unknown.

“It is the easiest thing to do because we know each other so well,” said an army general and confidante of military chief General Wiranto.

Golkar is Abri’s creation. The two have been intertwined inextricably for the last 30 years. To abandon Golkar now on the tide of reformasi would run against the military’s innate sense of loyalty and scepticism that PDI-P and others could resuscitate Indonesia.

PDI-P’s policy pronouncements over the last week left much to be desired and signalled increasing discomfort with its political style despite attempts by the party not to antagonise the generals.

Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri’s party, which is leading the electoral vote count, has echoed some of the chief concerns by adopting a nationalist line on many issues, including the need to maintain the country’s unity.

But this was buried in unseemly haste by comments on national issues that has left them wondering whether PDI-P could run the country.

“We were unnerved,” said a two-star general.

“Suddenly they were declaring the rupiah should be pegged and that Indonesia would establish diplomatic ties with Israel. “They are going haywire just being in front of the other parties. They have been starved for so long and now they are stuffing themselves at one go,” he said.

“Imagine what they will be like when they come into power. We are getting a sense that they won’t be able to cope with power.”

There are other explanations.

Some within Abri argue that even if Ms Megawati has pushed her ideological bearing closer to the centre, there is fear that elements within her party might want it to veer towards the left.

Another reason was that it did not want to antagonise the Muslims. “Why should we make the Muslims hate us?” an army general asked.

Whether these concerns are genuine are open to question. After all, the military stuck with Mr Suharto even when he was pursuing hare-brained schemes such as the currency board.

And of course, fear of left-wing extremism and the communist bogey is always easy to invoke.

Besides fear of the unknown, there are practical reasons for supporting Golkar.

For one, over a year of working with President B. J. Habibie has given Abri a degree of confidence in him even if he was never their first choice for the presidency.

The military chose to back Dr Habibie at Golkar’s special congress last year. Leaving its preferences unchanged means that it might continue to support him despite attendant public pressures.

A change in that policy will require the difficult task of building consensus within Abri first.

Military intelligence sources said that General Wiranto did not have the stomach for this. His style has been essentially a consensus builder in a disunited military rather than someone who leads from the front.

In public, Abri continues to support Indonesia’s best son or daughter for the top job.

But the phrase putra terbaik rings hollow particularly after Mr Suharto’s re-election and the appointment of his protege, Dr Habibie, in 1997.

Military officers said that the incumbent, given his position as Abri’s supreme commander, could use his position to pressure the military into backing him.

Said a source: “He was able to get Pak Wiranto to do his bidding at the Golkar congress last year. He might resort to that again if he can survive internal strife in the party.”

He noted that prevailing rivalry within Golkar, however, made it difficult for the German-trained engineer to pull the same punches as he did a year ago.

“His position is much weaker. The military has greater leverage power now.”

He noted that Gen Wiranto’s comments earlier this week on the presidential election were a “strong signal” to Dr Habibie and other aspirants that they would have to factor Abri’s interests.

The Javanese general had said that military members of Parliament would take sides in the polls. Abri’s 38 seats in Parliament would amount to almost 8 per cent of the total – still enough to give them some influence to play the kingmaker’s role.

That prospect is looming in a situation where no party commands a majority in either the new Parliament or the 700-member People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) that chooses the next President and his running mate. In the end, Gen Wiranto might go with Golkar.

The military’s institutional interests rather than any genuine assessment of the candidates will prevail. The Habibie camp is making overtures to protect Abri’s business interests and guarantee an increase in territorial commands.

More importantly, insiders said Gen Wiranto would support a President that can guarantee protection for the “Cendana” or Mr Suharto and his family.

Said an army general: “Abri and, more specifically, Pak Wiranto will go where the Cendana wants him to go. That will be to support Golkar. It is the only way to save his mentor.”

Abri’s main difficulty would be selling an unpopular Golkar and Dr Habibie to the public. And one cannot discount the prospect of mass demonstrations of the kind that rocked Indonesia and toppled Mr Suharto in May last year. It is likely that Dr Habibie will continue to balance the demands of two different audiences.

The first will be those who want evidence of his commitment to reform.

The other group would accept him only if he can accommodate Gen Wiranto’s fundamental desire to protect Mr Suharto. Either way, it is probable that with the passage of time, Dr Habibie’s own position could become increasingly insecure while the general’s becomes more secure.

Wild-card scenarios that Gen Wiranto might clinch the top job by default remains possible given his popularity among several leading parties as a compromise candidate to head a government of national unity.

Will the Javanese warrior be kingmaker – or will he be king?

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