Golkar’s phoenix on the rise from post-Suharto ashes

AT ITS 36th anniversary last week, Golkar’s chairman Akbar Tandjung declared that his party would win the 2004 election and lead any future government.

Confident words from a party which was once the bastion of support for former-President Suharto’s regime and is still suffering from residual public resentment after 30 years of corruption and autocratic rule.

But Golkar’s new-found optimism is more than political hyperbole. After more than two years in the doldrums, the party appears to have re-discovered its nerve.

While others, including the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P), seem to be plodding through Indonesia’s muddled democratic experiment, Golkar is trying quietly to plot its way back to power.


GOLKAR was torn apart by internal strife and desertion after Mr Suharto’s fall in May 1998. It became a shadow of its former self as factional rivalries skewed party strategy.

There were two main camps then – one led by Mr Akbar and the other dominated by members of the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals, whose only aim was to prop up Dr B.J. Habibie’s presidency.

Interestingly, Dr Habibie’s protagonists appear to be muted in their comments against arch-rival Mr Akbar these days. Ms Marwah Daud, Mr Arnold Baramuli or Mr Rahadi Ramelan have not attacked him or tried to circumvent his position since the epic presidential fight in October last year.

Why? Dr Habibie’s fall from power had a domino effect in the political constellation with most of his supporters being eased out of key government posts.

Policy differences exist between Golkar leaders but ideological divisions have dissipated somewhat, with the party moving back to the centre after leaning towards modernist Islam.

Mr Akbar made peace with Dr Habibie’s group with guarantees that its economic interests in Indonesia – especially in the lucrative shipping and the aircraft industries -would not be mentioned or surface in any parliamentary debates on government financial amorality and corruption.

It is instructive to note that the one-year-old Parliament – of which Mr Akbar is the Speaker – for all its vitriol against President Abdurrahman Wahid for his alleged financial scandals, has not breathed a word of the notorious Baligate affair, a key issue which brought down the Habibie administration.

The Golkar leader, who had only paper authority over the party a year ago, now has unquestionable authority over its vast funds and infrastructure.

One contributing factor to his power is his widespread popularity within Golkar.

With the exception of Attorney-General Marzuki Darusman, whose influence appears to be waning, there does not appear to be a direct challenge to him from within the party. He can easily turn to cadres throughout the archipelago to support his policies.

Popularity is not the only weapon a leader has in the struggle to control his party. Another handy tool is personal loyalty.

Among a growing pool of backers, Mr Akbar can count on the support of Mr Ekky Syahruddin and Mr Chairul Anwar – both are linked to the influential nationwide Islamic university students’ group Himpunan Mahasiswa Islam (HMI).

He can also count on a younger generation of Golkar leaders, such as Mr Ade Komarudin and Mr Priyo Budi Susilo.

To build a new image and pre-empt the emergence of intra-party rivalries, the Golkar chairman has sought to dismantle old party structures.

In the Suharto era, the Golkar could count on the support of the military, bureaucracy, and civilian groups like Soksi and Kosgoro which fell under the Golkar family umbrella.

Mr Akbar has turned adversity to advantage by doing away formally with Golkar’s crucial pillars of support and developing the party along more conventional lines where party representatives in the villages, districts and provinces deal directly with Golkar headquarters in Jakarta – not through military or bureaucratic interlocutors.

It has allowed more direct political communication between the centre and regional party bases and at the same time reduced significantly any possibility of opposing sources of power emanating from the provinces.


HOW much can the new Golkar learn from the old?

Not much, according to some party leaders, except what pitfalls or renewed follies to avoid.

In keeping with the winds of reformasi, Golkar has detached itself from the military and the bureaucracy. It now prefers to be seen as a people’s party rather than an elitist group linked to key political brokers.

There might not be any formal ties but informal links especially at elite level do exist. Conscious of the political fallout if Golkar is perceived to be warming up to the military again, Mr Akbar and others have taken pains to cultivate close relations with several senior Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) officers by holding talks with them on a regular basis.

Several meetings have been held with Armed Forces Chief Admiral Widodo, General Tyasno Sudarto and other key military figures.

A two-star general said: “The meetings are obviously secret because both sides do not want the public to know that they are still in collusion. There will be a backlash.”

Golkar is also reportedly using the National Defence Institute, a Ministry of Defence think- tank, as a hunting ground to find army generals that could sympathise with the party’s cause. It is difficult for the party to extricate itself emotionally from the military given the long history between the two. It was, after all, the armed forces which founded Golkar in the 1960s to counterbalance communist influence in Indonesia.

What can both gain from each other in the post-Suharto era?

Golkar’s principal interest is getting the TNI’s support in Parliament to counterbalance the PDI-P and the Central Axis faction.

In the era of a free and critical press in Indonesia, it is unlikely that the party will resort to the dirty-tricks campaign of the Suharto era by using military commanders to force voters in the regions to back Golkar.

The TNI is prepared to deal with any party in power which can meet its interests. It is guided by considerations of realpolitik in its dealings with civilian politicians. But at the very core, its links with Golkar continue to be the strongest.

After all, nearly 80 per cent of Golkar leaders in the provinces and districts are retired military officers.

The generals would expect Mr Akbar to use his position in Parliament to swing decisions in their favour.

That was demonstrated conspicuously during the national assembly (MPR) session in August when he worked behind the scenes to prod the PDI-P and other legislators to support the military’s presence in the country’s highest legislative body until 2009.

An informal relationship grounded on mutual interests also exists with the bureaucracy. Most of the governors, district and village chiefs in Indonesia today are products of Golkar. Their continued loyalty to the party is based on pure economic interests built up through decades of collusion that they would not be able to get with the other parties.


CONTRARY to widespread expectations, Golkar was able to avoid a crashing defeat in the 1999 election and scrape into second position for one major reason: Money.

It had lots of it with the most formidable electoral machine at grassroots level. It is this pervasive structural power which gives the cadres confidence in doing better than the 24 per cent the party secured in the election – 10 percentage points behind the PDI-P.

Sources estimate that the party has more than 2 trillion rupiah (S$400 million) in its coffers. Funds come from various sources – a lot was accumulated during the Suharto era through the seven conglomerates the former president controlled.

They also came from dealing with the business conglomerates. The Straits Times understands that Golkar still receives funds from several influential business groups which include Salim, Bakrie, Bukaka, Sinar Mas, Wanandi and Texmaco – the usual suspects which are keeping their options open by backing other parties, such as the PDI-P, as well.

Money flows in from prominent business associations like Kadin, Hipmi and Gapensi at national and regional levels.

Most of these businesses supported 80 to 90 per cent of the 1999 election costs, leaving the Golkar war chest relatively untouched.

The money is indispensable in shaping political outcomes. It is used to bribe rival party officials especially from the PDI-P, the PKB or even Dr Amien Rais’ National Mandate Party (PAN) at the regional level and subsequently discrediting them in public.

It is part of a broader strategy to undermine these parties and smooth the way for Golkar in the run up to 2004’s election. Against the Central Axis faction, it is engaging in divide-and-rule by pitting rival and less-experienced parties against one another.

Sources said Golkar had tried several times to prod Dr Amien and PAN to go on the offensive against Mr Abdurrahman, eliciting a vitriolic defence by the President’s PKB outfit.

The latest incident took place only last week when the HMI, which Mr Akbar used to head in the 1970s and still has a strong power base, attacked the 59-year-old Muslim cleric during a dialogue session with students in West Java.

Interestingly, they cited Dr Amien’s call for a special MPR session that drew flak from the President and his supporters against the PAN leader.

Mr Akbar, meanwhile, sang a different tune by saying that Parliament had little grounds to impeach the beleaguered President or call an emergency session – just a week after telling The Straits Times that there would be one within a year.

The party uses a similar Machiavellian plot against the PDI-P by pursuing a dual-track policy towards in its chief rival.

Sharing similar nationalist-secular credentials, Golkar is first to recognise the PDI-P as its most compatible coalition partner.

But while supporting openly the PDI-P’s victory in the last general election, it is taking steps to undermine the party’s standing at the same time.

Besides bribery, there have been a growing number of cases in which Golkar cadres have exploited ideological divisions in the PDI-P by taking sides with them secretly to deepen the split. In Parliament, the pattern is for Golkar to start the ball rolling on an issue and let the PDI-P stoke the flames with the government. It was evident in the handling of the Bulogate and Bruneigate scandals.

After initiating them, Golkar went into quiet retreat and let PDI-P legislators go on a collision course with the President.

This not only weakened its ties with the PKB but also drew it closer to Golkar.

In the face of rising political temperatures, Golkar is supporting the PDI-P’s bid to push its chairman and current Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri to replace Mr Abdurrahman.

Prevailing thinking among the Golkar elite is that Ms Megawati would also falter if she became president or do so badly in power that it would dent the PDI-P’s credibility to make a move for the top post four years from now. Golkar’s game plan is to focus on the 2004 election and clinching the presidency.

Mr Akbar does not hide the fact that party efforts are directed towards winning this twin objective. He believes Golkar can “draw even” with the PDI-P, with both parties getting at least 30 per cent of the vote.

As the chief architect of Golkar’s revival, Mr Akbar could graduate to be Indonesia’s leader-in-waiting. The 55-year-old, softly-spoken Batak – who is anything but blunt in his demeanour – has donned the Javanese mask of inscrutability in the political arena.

Is Golkar being too overconfident? Some argue that Indonesians would not allow the ghosts of the past regime to haunt the country again.

Everything seems promising for Golkar, except the burden of history that will be its Achilles heel.

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