The man who gets things done
He is the President’s man.
Coordinating Minister for Welfare Jusuf Kalla is one of two politicians being courted by Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri to be her running mate in the election. Her other shield, of course, is Nadhlatul Ulama chairman Hasyim Muzadi.
But Mr Jusuf makes a more attractive catch. For one, he is from Golkar, one of the country’s largest parties, which could be a key alliance partner with Ms Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P).
And significantly, he hails from a non-Javanese background – a Bugis with strong Islamic credentials, given his grassroots links with several Muslim groups.
He is, in fact, the perfect catch for Ms Megawati – if the plan goes according to the script drawn by the President’s hubby, Mr Taufik Kiemas. And Mr Jusuf knows it. Ms Megawati’s and Mr Jusuf’s feelings – and plans – are mutual.
‘We complement each other in many ways,’ he says. ‘I have a good private and professional relationship with Ibu Mega.’
Like the palace, he is gradually realising that for every potential winning coalition partner, there is a political price to pay. Things are never that simple amid the ebb and flow of Indonesian politics.
The 58-year-old businessman from Watampone in South Sulawesi is the second of seven children in a family that was known for being entrepreneurial and successful in business.
His father, Hadji Kalla, founded a general trading company in the 1960s. But business went bad after a few years and the company was in decline.
Mr Jusuf, who was 25 years old then, had just graduated from the Hasanuddin University in 1967. He was offered a job to head the state-run National Logistics Agency (Bulog) in South Sulawesi. But he rejected it, deciding instead to help with problems at home.
‘I knew it was a risk then, especially after being offered a comfortable job as a government official,’ he says. ‘But I was hard-headed about resolving our problems in business.’
He had this magic touch – an ability to turn things around. He also discovered he had two strong assets that would serve him well in government decades later: leadership and organisational ability.
Within 10 years, he transformed a small-scale trading outfit into a multi-industry group with 15 subsidiaries and thousands of employees.
Political analyst Meidyatama Suryodiningrat of the authoritative Van Zorge Report says the success of the group was largely due to Mr Jusuf’s ability to think big and lobby the ground.
‘He is an astute lobbyist who has always managed to build strong relations with local and national politicians to secure major deals,’ says Mr Meidyatama, who has followed his political career.
His family and associates have been on the winning side of lucrative public infrastructure projects, mainly due to his skill in co-opting even those opposed to granting him the deal.
His success in business proved to be his passport into politics. In 1999, then president Abdurrahman Wahid invited him to join his Cabinet as trade minister. His ministerial tenure, however, was short.
Mr Abdurrahman fired him just six months into the job, accusing him of corruption. But insiders say he was sacked because the Indonesian leader could not get him to disburse funds from Bulog that fell under his ministry.
He went straight back into his business but a year later was courted again for politics, this time by Ms Megawati. He was offered one of three coordinating minister’s posts in her Cabinet – a remarkable feat, considering he had not been in politics for long.
Mr Jusuf says he knew it won’t be easy but he went for broke, drawing similarities to the decision he made in 1967 to join his father’s company.
He explains: ‘In both instances, I had to make major decisions which I did not regret. Ibu Mega is not a difficult person to work for. She gives her ministers the freedom to operate independently and get the job done.’
One issue in which he was given such latitude was strife-torn Poso in Central Sulawesi. He ended months of communal violence in the area by negotiating peace agreements with rival groups. His political standing grew and people in government saw him as someone who ‘gets things done’.
‘I believe in working hard behind the scenes to make things happen,’ he says. ‘Decisions in politics are a lot like business. You just need to do it – and do it right with very little margin for error.’
A presidential confidante says that this is what makes Mr Jusuf so attractive to the palace. ‘He is a professional who will not hesitate in taking decisions others will never make,’ he says.
‘But he will never do it in a way that will offend Megawati or steal the limelight from her. That is very important in winning the confidence of the President. And that is why he is on top of her list because both of them have grown very comfortable with each other.’
But can he get the vice-presidency? On the surface, he appears to have a chance. After all, he is being coveted, not the other way around.
Besides his personal chemistry with the President, palace advisers say that he meets several key requirements for a winning coalition ticket: He has the backing of a major party machine in the form of Golkar and, more importantly, links to the Muslim ground, which Ms Megawati is trying hard to cultivate.
Also, he is close to the influential Islamic Students Association and the Muslim Students Movement. Given his base in South Sulawesi, he is also able to draw a sizeable number of votes from eastern Indonesia. He has built up political affiliations in that region.
Many of them are from Iramasuka, a Golkar faction with very close links to former president B.J. Habibie. These include senior Golkar member A.A. Baramuli, Golkar vice chairman Marwah Daud and Mr La Ode Kamaluddin, secretary to Vice-President Hamzah Haz.
According to Mr Meidyatama, he has also surrounded himself with several political strategists. Mr Andi Mattalatta is the big-picture thinker behind Mr Jusuf’s campaign.
A senior Golkar politician from South Sulawesi and an experienced legislator, he has been involved in deliberations over many important draft laws on subjects such as political parties and the general election.
Another key figure is Mr Malkan Amin. He is said to be the ‘field coordinator’ of the team, shuttling between Jakarta and South Sulawesi to drum up support for his vice presidential bid.
Besides a trusted group of backers from his home town, Mr Jusuf also has the money to take on his opponents, drawing on funds from his own company.
But in the grand scheme of things, all these might just come to nought. Mr Jusuf’s political fate is intricately linked to circumstances beyond his control.
One is the acquittal of Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung. Before the Supreme Court decision last week, Mr Jusuf’s chances of being Golkar’s candidate for a coalition with PDI-P looked a lot brighter.
Some might have questioned his credentials to win the party convention with the likes of other heavyweights like retired General Wiranto and tycoons Surya Paloh and Abu Rizal Bakrie.
He did not have mass appeal outside South Sulawesi and did not have the complete backing of provincial branches because he was not a party cadre.
But he was an important figure in the Akbar camp which saw him as a bargaining chip in an alliance with the PDI-P if the chairman was forced out of the race.
A Golkar senior says: ‘Akbar made it clear that if he is out, then Kalla is in as the lead contender.’
But circumstances have changed dramatically since the Golkar leader’s exoneration. With Mr Akbar free, there is only a very slim chance that the party would back Mr Jusuf for the top post or even the vice-presidency.
Some speculate that Golkar might have used Mr Jusuf as a bargaining chip to draw the palace into a deal to stave off a damning court verdict against Mr Akbar. But the Golkar leader may well go for the presidency or running mate himself, judging from his recent comments.
Observers say the personal chemistry between the Golkar chairman and the President is not good. But Ms Megawati has shown in the past that she is prepared to forge political alliances with her rivals to shore up her power base.
A classic example is co-opting the Muslim camp in Parliament by backing Mr Hamzah Haz for the vice-presidency in 2001.
Ultimately, everything will boil down to what Mr Akbar wants. Mr Jusuf’s future is looking bleaker today. Even then, the palace is still coveting him. He remains an important pawn in the whole game.
After all, he is the President’s man.