Golkar leadership race boils down to two

As preliminary convention begins, fight between party chairman Akbar Tandjung and retired general Wiranto is main event.

Golkar kicked off a preliminary convention last night to pick seven candidates to contest the party’s presidential ticket next year.

Amid internal bickering which has significant implications for party unity, Golkar cadres are staring at several well-known contenders, including retired generals and business tycoons.

Two weeks of polling in party branches across Indonesia have thrown up several front runners: businessman Aburizal Bakrie, media mogul Surya Paloh, Cabinet minister Jusuf Kalla, former Indonesian president Suharto’s son-in-law Prabowo Subianto and the Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengku Buwono X.

But the battle in the next two days – and indeed in the coming months – will be between retired general Wiranto and Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung.

They rank third and fourth respectively in terms of the number of provinces backing them, but have been the most successful in winning support from municipal chapters.

Golkar’s vice-chairman Marzuki Darusman noted: ‘They are the two figures to watch. They have the strongest grassroots support and political network.’

Mr Wiranto is a newcomer to Golkar. But he has been able to draw on his links with the military and party-affiliated groups to capture support.

Contrary to what his detractors may think, his military background and links to the Suharto regime have been assets for the 57-year-old.

Indonesians across the board are backing him because of a ‘craving for peace and stability’.

Mr Wiranto told The Straits Times in an interview recently: ‘Indonesians are tired of violence and poor leadership. I know I can do a better job in running this country than any of the last three presidents.’

Mr Wiranto’s rise has been a major challenge for Mr Akbar. The Golkar leader has conceded that his own performance so far has been a disappointment.

The pending Supreme Court ruling on his appeal against corruption charges hangs like a sword above him, costing him votes in several provinces.

But Mr Akbar has refused to back down. ‘I know that in the end, Golkar cadres will support me,’ he said.

Over the past three years, the soft-spoken Batak engineered the revival of Golkar and also his own fortunes, even as his enemies ganged up against him from within and outside the party.

As chairman, he has the power to approve nominations for provincial and district legislatures across the country after the election next April.

That is why he wants any decision on Golkar’s presidential candidate to be decided then – not in February as is stipulated in the convention rules.

Reflecting his continued pull within the party, the proposal has won the support of at least 20 of the 30 party provincial chapters.

A delay helps Mr Akbar in these ways: It gives him more time to weed out potential opposition and to wait for the Supreme Court decision that will remove any doubts about his standing within the party.

Publicly, his supporters have declared that more time will help party consolidation. Sceptics think otherwise.

Mr Marzuki believes that there could be a ‘strategic vacuum’ until the election. He said: ‘Each candidate will be pursuing his own interest rather than the party’s. Golkar will be in a drift.’

Significantly, the delay buys time for Mr Akbar, who now stands on an equal footing with Mr Wiranto in the fight. In the event that his court appeal is squashed, the Golkar chairman has no option but to accept defeat.

But if he is cleared and forces the convention to drag on until April, his fortunes will rise considerably. The balance of power between the two then rests on one critical factor: getting the other candidates to support them.

It is a mere formality that seven names will emerge later today after a final round of secret voting. A bigger showdown awaits Golkar in the next few months.

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