The ultimate survivor


It is election year in Indonesia. There will be legislative polls in April, a presidential election in July and a possible run-off in September. Over the next two weeks, The Straits Times Indonesia bureau chief DERWIN PEREIRA will meet, travel with and interview the top election candidates to find out what makes them tick, what drives them, how much sway they have over the population and how these leaders see their chances. We will also examine the places and the issues that could dictate the outcome of these elections. Our coverage kicks off with a profile of Golkar leader Akbar Tandjung and a look at the political and economic backdrop in the run-up to the polls.

VOTES 2004

He is the Energizer Bunny. Dressed in yellow – his party’s colour – with long ears and hands on a drum, Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung appears on the cover of the weekly magazine, Tempo.

At 30,000 feet, he stretches in the first-class cabin as he mimics the cover portrait. ‘Yes, I will keep going and going,’ he says with a wry grin.

‘I have politics in my blood.’

If the bunny is a symbol of endurance, then Mr Akbar’s 40 years in politics is a clear indication of his staying power.

He is not just a survivor, he is destined yet again to be kingmaker – maybe even ascend the throne himself – in a career marked by big highs and lows.

He was a student activist in the 1960s amid the turmoil of the communist threat, Konfrontasi and the birth pangs of a new government.

The ninth child in a family of 12, he spent his early years in Sibolga in North Sumatra, where he was born in 1945.

His father, a trader, died when he was three. Spiralling social and economic unrest made life difficult, but he managed to get a decent education, mostly in Christian schools despite coming from a devout Muslim family.

In 1960, he left for Jakarta, later enrolling in engineering at the University of Indonesia.

There, his political apprenticeship began as he joined student groups in rallying against the communists.

He entered politics full-time in 1973, and four years later joined Golkar.

‘I did not want to be an engineer because it would never have given me the adrenalin politics gave me,’ he says.

‘I grew up with Richard Nixon as my hero in politics. He was a great fighter and survivor. I wanted to emulate him.’

He moved up the party ranks and the turning point was his appointment as deputy secretary-general in 1983.

It marked the start of a stellar political career with postings in three consecutive Cabinets in 1988, 1993 and 1998 – the year in which he also became Golkar’s leader.

These were the crucial years when he learnt the high-level political skills that would serve him well as Golkar’s fortunes plummeted after Suharto’s fall. He emerged unscathed as a major power broker.

He played a vital role in the rise and fall of three presidents: Suharto, B. J. Habibie and Abdurrahman Wahid.

He also crafted his way back into the forefront of Indonesian politics.

His rivals tried to kill him off politically two years ago by accusing him of siphoning US$4.5 million (S$7.5 million) from state funds. He spent a month in jail in the Attorney-General’s Office with the threat of a three-year prison term held at bay by his appeal to the Supreme Court.

Mr Akbar says: ‘I have been through a lot these past years. I had rotten eggs and rocks thrown at my wife and myself during the election campaign in 1999, but this was the lowest point in my life.’

Even at the height of his legal problems, no Golkar opponent had the power to oust him because of the patronage he had built up. His exoneration last Thursday by the Supreme Court only strengthened his grip on Golkar.

Mr Akbar looks out of the window as GA 302 cruises towards East Java’s capital of Surabaya. It is Wednesday, the eve of that crucial verdict.

He is a picture of confidence.

‘Do you know how much sacrifice I have made in my life because of politics?’ he says.

‘I don’t spend much time with my wife and daughters. I don’t even get a chance to travel much outside Indonesia.

‘I stayed on because I have the motivation and energy. I want my party to do well. If Golkar does well, my cadres will support me.’

Golkar’s popularity is still high and Mr Akbar is likely to ride the wave. For months, the court case was an albatross around his neck. It cast doubt over his ability to sway regional branches to support him.

Now, he is almost certain to get unqualified backing from cadres. He will also be able to draw support from the Golkar executive board that will eventually call the shots in the party convention process after the April legislative election.

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

The convention was introduced as a deliberate strategy to deflect attention away from the chairmanship debate and Mr Akbar’s legal imbroglio.

However, it was presented to the public as a means of presenting a strong presidential nominee through a democratic process.

It attracted retired army generals Wiranto and Prabowo Subianto, Coordinating Minister for Welfare Jusuf Kalla, business tycoons Surya Paloh and Abu Rizal Bakrie, and the Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengku Buwono X.

Amid so much uncertainty over Mr Akbar’s fate, the convention was in danger of imploding. His acquittal changed everything. Now the Energizer Bunny is also Demolition Man.

The first casualty, the Sultan, quit the race in protest. The big guns – Jusuf, Surya and Abu Rizal – are likely to swing in favour of Mr Akbar.

That leaves just Mr Wiranto, whose huge war chest and network pose a formidable challenge.

Mr Akbar is unfazed: ‘Once I am free, I know I have the best chance to win it.’

If he does, what will history make of him? Will he be king or kingmaker? Mr Akbar ponders that as the plane descends.

It is hard to read the soft-spoken Batak who is anything but blunt in his demeanour. It has been shaped by the years of marriage to his Solo-born wife, Krisnina Maharani.

In the political arena, Mr Akbar dons the Javanese mask of inscrutability.

Deep down, he wants the throne. ‘I want to be king,’ he says. ‘But I do not know if the circumstances will be right.’

Mr Akbar prefers an alliance with Golkar’s main rival by running on a split ticket with Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri’s Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P).

It will not matter who Golkar nominates so long as it gains a degree of political security for the chairman and the party.

In this scenario, Mr Akbar could be vice-president or pick another candidate like Mr Jusuf, to whom he is close, for the No. 2 position.

He explains: ‘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.

‘I will be 62 in 2009. Do you think I will be too old to be president then?’

Some in the party are concerned about going for the leadership now.

Explains a Golkar senior: ‘Why take the risk of running the country when things are not likely to improve?’

Much depends on the parliamentary election results.

If the margin of difference between the Big Two is small – 2 to 3 per cent – Golkar would most likely accept the vice-presidency even if it won the polls.

But if there is more than 5 per cent between them – in Golkar’s favour – it would be difficult to convince the regional chapters of the logic of a coalition with the PDI-P.

That would be, according to one Golkar Cabinet minister, a ‘political disaster’.

It would throw the race between the two parties wide open.

Mr Akbar would be pushed into the race by most likely having to join forces with others to take on Ms Megawati.

And when two giants clash, there is no certainty who will win.

The plane has landed. ‘I am confident everything will be OK,’ he says, with another wry grin.

Having been around for four decades, he is one of the most savvy politicians in Indonesia today.

And he is likely to stay on for some time – as kingmaker par excellence or even as king.

The Energizer Bunny, it seems, just keeps going and going.

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