Mega torn between inner circle and party

NEWS ANALYSIS

Party priorities are losing out to palace interests – as reflected in minister Rini’s rising star despite Sukhoi-gate.

These days, oil baron Arifin Panigoro rarely attends the central executive board meetings of the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P).

He and other PDI-P stalwarts prefer to stay on the sidelines and watch their party wiggle through an enormous tangle of Mission Impossibles – brought on, ironically, by its chairman Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Much to the chagrin of Mr Arifin and others, who played a key role in clinching the presidency for Ms Megawati two years ago, party priorities are fast giving way to palace interests.

At least two issues have tested the relationship in recent months.

The most conspicuous one is the Sukhoi-gate scandal and Trade and Industry Minister Rini Soewandi’s role in it.

Ms Rini’s links with the President and her influential husband Taufik Kiemas have given her access to the palace inner circle with a crucial say in mapping out a political strategy for Ms Megawati’s re-election next year.

Her comments and track record in recent months have been coloured by attempts to get close to vested interest groups linked to the Indonesian leader, especially now with fund-raising for the polls under way.

Clearly under the influence of powerful business lobbyists, she appears to push for populist policies such as raising non-tariff barriers on imports of goods such as sugar, rice, used clothes, textile and steel products.

Her involvement in barter deals, to finance Jakarta’s controversial purchase of Sukhoi jet fighters and helicopters from Russia, is another example of her trying to win over the palace.

The ‘Sukhoi-gate’ saga was fodder for her enemies to attack her openly. It is an open secret that several PDI-P cadres and Cabinet ministers are upset with Ms Rini for ‘hiding under the cover of her godmother’ Megawati. At a hush-hush meeting late on Tuesday night, senior PDI-P legislators ganged up against her by calling for her dismissal. But the call fell on deaf ears. Ms Megawati would never let a trusted aide go, especially someone she has appointed to oversee the project.

A palace insider said: ‘Ibu Mega never allows party bickering to influence her when it comes to Cabinet matters. She is strong enough to overcome any opposition to Rini or any other minister.

‘The President believes that without her name, the PDI-P is nothing. Party members owe her a living – not the other way around.’

Such thinking has coloured Ms Megawati’s responses in the past when faced with pressure from senior PDI-P members to replace a minister or politician.

For example, she has stood firm in the face of attempts to oust Attorney-General Mohamed Rahman and other members ofher Cabinet.

But she seemed less than successful in protecting another loyalist, retired Major-General Theo Syafei.

Media reports said the PDI-P legislator was forced to resign from the party this week after it became clear that he had engineered the appointment of a Golkar candidate, Mr Suwarna Abdul Fatah, to the East Kalimantan governorship – with the President’s blessings.

He had done so in return, reportedly, for a donation of six billion rupiah (S$1.2 million) to the palace coffers.

Senior PDI-P executives backed one of their own, Mr Imam Mundjiat, for the post.

PDI-P’s parliamentary faction leader Roy Janis said: ‘This is another example of a politician using the party’s name for his own interests.’

But the retired Major-General Theo’s position is no different from Ms Rini’s.

They were believed to be acting with the President’s consent.

What does all this mean for Ms Megawati and the PDI-P?

The next few months could see even greater friction between the President and loyalists in the palace inner circle and the PDI-P central executive board represented by the likes of Mr Arifin.

But come elections, it means very little because at the tactical level, the PDI-P will continue to depend on Ms Megawati’s allure and name for grassroots support.

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