Akbar set to tighten his grip on Golkar

With corruption charges out of the way, he is almost certain to get full support from party heavyweights.

In the end, it was not to be.

Rivals of Golkar leader Akbar Tandjung had long hoped that a guilty verdict against him would have barred the party chief from entering the presidential race.

But the decision by the Supreme Court yesterday to exonerate the 58-year-old politician from corruption charges would now allow him to do what they feared most – consolidate his grip on Golkar.

It may well see him emerge as the party’s top contender for the presidency.

More significantly, it raises the possibility of a coalition between two juggernauts – Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) – against a backdrop of criticism that politics and money coloured the legal outcome.

The implications of his verdict are largely political.

But also, it would set tongues wagging once again over the credibility of the Indonesian judiciary, especially since this was to be a test case of the court’s ability to root out endemic corruption.

With elections looming, President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s administration had appeared in recent months to be trying to score political points by going after former government officials suspected of graft.

But critics said none of these were as high-profile as the Golkar chief. In any case, they charged, the country’s rich and powerful were able to evade imprisonment in cases involving misuse of power.

Some believe Mr Akbar has a legal case.

Mr Akbar, who is also Parliamentary Speaker, was found guilty almost 18 months ago of misappropriating US$4.5 million (S$7.5 million) in state funds intended for public food assistance to the poor. He was sentenced to three years in prison – which he never served.

In his appeal, he argued that he funnelled the food-assistance money into Golkar party funds on orders from former president B. J. Habibie, and that he was not personally enriched by the move.

He said the money was later returned to government coffers.

Mr Meidyatama Suryodiningrat of the Van Zorge Report noted: ‘It is very hard to pin Akbar down because he was acting on his superior’s orders.’

There were too many holes in the prosecution’s case to stand up to legal scrutiny.

But the grounds on which the decision was based matter little politically to Mr Akbar and Golkar. With the exception of the intellectual elite who would be stung by the decision, many were unlikely to be affected by it.

Golkar’s popularity is still riding high. And Mr Akbar is likely to ride on it.

For months, the court case was an albatross that hung around his neck. It cast doubts over his ability to sway Golkar provincial branches to support him.

But now, he is almost certain to get unqualified backing from cadres who previously held back because they were uncertain about his political fate.

At the same time, Mr Akbar would also be able to get almost total support from the Golkar executive board that would call the shots in the party convention process and coalitions after the legislative election.

His rivals, who did well in the first stage of the convention last October, would now be pondering their chances.

Retired general Wiranto and media magnate Suryo Paloh are not Golkar insiders and lack the depth of patronage the chairman commands in the party.

A concern for some in the party is that Mr Akbar’s renewed challenge could sharpen the rivalry between the seven candidates running in the convention and split the party. But the Golkar leader is not losing any sleep.

He told The Straits Times: ‘Once I am free, I know I have the best chance to win it.’

His game plan in running for the convention is not all about winning the presidency or the No. 2 position: he is competing for his own political survival.

Golkar sources said that one scenario would be for him to clinch the convention, then manoeuvre the party into allying with its main rival, coalescing in a split ticket with PDI-P.

The combined resources of the two parties would most certainly clinch the presidential election in the first round.

It will not matter who Golkar nominates on the ticket as long as it ensures a degree of political security for Mr Akbar and the party.

Said Mr Akbar: ‘The important thing is that we do well in the election and secure important positions in the Cabinet. We do not need to win the presidency now.

‘Golkar’s time is the next election in 2009 when the party will be much stronger.’

For him, the end is still a long way to go.

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