Everyone now wants to woo Bambang

INDONESIAN ELECTIONS

He is riding high with his party’s good showing, and the way is open for a presidential bid or an unbeatable alliance.

NEWS ANALYSIS

JAKARTA – What a difference a week makes in politics!

Seven days ago, Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) carried the banner of the Big Two. Their dominance was unquestioned.

Today, while they run neck and neck for top spot in the polls, a better-than-expected showing by smaller parties has altered political alignments and thrown up dark horse candidates who need to be courted.

Intense horse-trading is now revolving around one man: Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The former security czar who quit the Megawati administration in a huff a month ago has emerged as one of the most serious rivals to the incumbent.

Being courted by different political players, he is what The Jakarta Post describes as ‘a new, cute girl at school’.

His approval rating is high – even higher than Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has been riding all along on her cult status as daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno.

His small Democratic Party (PD) has benefited from his popularity. It has performed beyond expectation in this election, with some believing that it could get as high as 7 per cent of the national votes. It paves the way for his presidential bid in July.

He is staring at several options if he goes for broke. One is to ride on the reformasi ticket. At the most extreme, he could align himself with an ad hoc group of Islamic based smaller parties, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), in what some describe as the ‘Third Force’.

PKS, like Mr Bambang’s party, has been a surprise. Run by young Western-educated men and women, it has campaigned aggressively against corruption, winning significant support.

His running mate here could be the popular Muslim intellectual Nurcholish Madjid, backed on a joint ticket with PKS.

But will the former army general, known for his nationalist disposition, want to rise to power on an Islamic ticket?

The alternative would be to go with Mr Hasyim Muzadi, chairman of the 40-million-strong Nadhlatul Ulama (NU). This looks attractive on paper, but in reality hard to get off the ground.

Mr Hasyim, who is also being courted by Ms Megawati, might have the support of several NU provincial chapters, but he has yet to find a party that will sponsor his vice presidential candidacy.

He does not have the backing of the Nation Awakening Party (PKB), which is led by former president Abdurrahman Wahid, who continues to wield enormous influence in the NU he once led.

Mr Hasyim might go it alone, but there is no guarantee he can capture the NU ground. The votes will split given that parties such as the PKB and the Muslim-based United Development Party are also drawing support from the country’s largest grassroots organisation.

One way to unite the NU vote is for him to make peace with his nemesis, Mr Abdurrahman. But that seems to be a tall order with the ailing cleric veering towards Golkar.

That presents Mr Bambang with a third option: an alliance between Golkar, PKB and PD.

For Golkar, this is a dream team that would steal the crown away from Ms Megawati in a battle that could go into a run-off in September.

A strong win by Golkar in the parliamentary election will strengthen its hand in any coalition talks. It may embolden party leaders to go for broke.

Indeed, with signs emerging that it will clinch the polls, it is now ruling out a coalition with Ms Megawati and PDI-P – touted a month ago by the palace as an unbeatable joint ticket. Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung, driven by personal ambition, wants the presidency for himself.

But to get there, he needs to get Mr Bambang on board given that his choices for a winning presidential ticket are limited. If brand recognition is a key factor in the presidential race, then he will do wonders for Mr Akbar’s waning popularity.

Golkar is attractive for Mr Bambang because it brings along its enormous grassroots machinery that will be key to winning a presidential election. But will he want to be Mr Akbar’s deputy? If Mr Bambang goes on a reformasi ticket, almost impossible.

Moreover, relations are somewhat strained between them. Some trace the roots of their problems back three years ago.

Then, Mr Bambang had agreed to run in the vice-presidential election at the National Assembly on the understanding that Mr Akbar would withdraw his own nomination at the last minute and throw Golkar’s support behind him.

That did not happen. In the end, it was the Golkar leader who progressed to the final run-off against the eventual winner.

More importantly, with his fortunes rising, Mr Bambang would want the top job himself – with another Golkar candidate such as Mr Jusuf Kalla as his running mate.

Will Mr Akbar give in especially if Golkar wins the polls? The permutations are endless. But increasingly, every potential winning presidential ticket has Mr Bambang’s name on it.

Where does that leave Ms Megawati in the wayang of coalition building which will dominate Indonesia’s political discussions?

With the PDI-P doing badly in the polls, she is no longer the flavour of the month.

The new, cute girl in school has taken over – for now at least.

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