Akbar back as Golkar’s top gun

THEN

Convicted of corruption in Buloggate scandal.

NOW

Front-runner in party’s presidential race.

FEW would have wagered a year ago that Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung would be a contender for next year’s presidential elections after he was convicted of corruption.

But the veteran politician has carefully wended his way back to the forefront of Indonesian politics.

After more than four years in the doldrums, he and his party appear to have rediscovered their nerve, with Mr Akbar now a leading contender for the top job in the 2004 elections.

But now the 57-year-old soft-spoken Batak has donned the Javanese mask of inscrutability to engineer the revival of Golkar’s and his own fortunes.

Since joining Golkar in the 1970s, and particularly since assuming the chairmanship in 1998, he has built a broad and loyal power base within that reaches most provincial branches and gives him unquestionable authority over the party’s vast funds and well-oiled grassroots infrastructure.

Even at the height of his legal problems in the damning Bulog corruption scandal, no opponent within the party had the power to oust him.

His principal rivals, Mr Fahmi Idris and Mr Agung Laksono, on Golkar’s central board realised that mounting a leadership challenge would only tear apart the party – with at least 70 per cent of the provincial branches veering towards Mr Akbar.

Despite internal bickering over his legal predicament and attempts to take away the party chairmanship from him, Mr Akbar kept the party united.

Against this backdrop, the Golkar leader put forward the idea of a party convention to choose presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

Golkar’s political allure attracted the likes of Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid, retired General Wiranto, Coordinating Minister for Welfare Jusuf Kalla, and business tycoons Abu Rizal Bakrie and Suryo Paloh to take part in a convention that would serve to mobilise grassroots support for candidates.

Mr Akbar kept his cards close to his chest and, being an astute politician, revealed his true colours only at the end by announcing his plans to run for nomination, killing off any hopes for his challengers.

The first casualty was Mr Nurcholish, who withdrew his candidacy over the weekend.

The Golkar convention is now a mere formality. With regional chapters holding the power to select the presidential candidate at the convention, there is no question that most, if not all, will vote for the party chairman.

And with indications that the Supreme Court will rule in his favour in the next few weeks, Mr Akbar will certainly enter the race with added confidence.

He had been sentenced to three years’ jail for embezzling state money but has appealed against the verdict.

Even if he decides to pull out of the race, he will do so only after backing another Golkar leader – such as Mr Jusuf Kalla – who will be able to protect his interests.

As the chief architect of Golkar’s revival, Mr Akbar is gung ho about its chances.

If it were to win the legislative election – to be held in April 2004 – it would almost certainly go for the top post.

It would, in this scenario, try to forge an alliance with the Nation Awakening Party (PKB) that enjoys strong ties to the 35-million-strong Nadhlatul Ulama.

But if Golkar came in second to the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P), it is likely to jump on the Megawati bandwagon and accept the vice-presidency.

Yet, Golkar has its troubled past to contend with and some argue that Indonesians will not allow the ghosts of the past regime to haunt the country again.

So while the future seems to be looking up for the party, the burden of the past could still be its undoing.

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