Indonesia’s ultimate survivor

IDSS-STRAITS TIMES FORUM ON INDONESIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

Akbar Tandjung wins fight after fight, and still aims to take leading role despite losing presidency battle to Wiranto.

NEWS ANALYSIS

Golkar chief Akbar Tandjung makes no bones about his lifetime hero in politics: Richard Nixon.

The former United States president, he says, was a great fighter and survivor. Mr Akbar likens himself today to Nixon. In a 40-year political career punctuated by dramatic highs and lows, he is getting ready for another battle in the months ahead.

If he wins, he could remain a dominant player in Indonesia for the next five years – or suffer an ignominious exit from politics.

This is an overriding concern, glimpses of which emerged in his talk at the conference on the presidential election organised by the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies (IDSS) and The Straits Times.

Responding to a question, Mr Akbar took pains to voice his support for his party’s presidential candidate, Mr Wiranto. But the message underlying it was one of political survival – his own.

In the face of his crushing defeat by the retired general at the Golkar convention last month, a tug-of-war is looming in the months ahead between him and Mr Wiranto for power and influence.

Having lost the chance to battle it out for the presidency, he is still keen to play a stewardship role in Indonesian politics.

He made clear that even if the former military commander clinched the presidency, he would have to abide by an agreement to work with Golkar.

‘As party leader, I am still in a strong position,’ he maintained. ‘The agreement is that Mr Wiranto will consult the party. There will be open communication on is sues … He will set up the Cabinet with our approval.’

Mr Akbar is in a Catch-22 dilemma.

If he backs Mr Wiranto – and he wins – it could very well mean the end of the Akbar camp in Golkar. The general will almost certainly move in to control Golkar by placing his own men in the powerful party central executive board.

But not supporting him leaves him open to accusations from his detractors that could further weaken his grip on party cadres desperate to return to power, and see this as Golkar’s best chance.

The savvy politician is treading the line carefully. He has hedged his bets on all the front runners – including incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri and another former general, Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

He will back Mr Wiranto so long as he can cut a deal that will allow him to do two things: First, secure Cabinet positions for his men, with himself possibly as head of a presidential advisory board or a senior minister-like post.

The second condition is more significant – but much more difficult to negotiate in the face of resistance from the Wiranto camp: Retain the Golkar chairmanship.

This is the prized catch for the dyed-in-the-wool politician, and something that he is prepared to fight for.

Privately, he tells aides that he has ‘lots of unfinished work’ in a party he helped to rebuild since the fall of former president Suharto.

In his speech, he proudly outlined the Golkar accomplishments he takes personal credit for. It won the April parliamentary poll with 21.58 per cent of the national votes, or 128 seats in the legislature.

More significantly for him, Golkar has representatives in all 69 constituencies across the sprawling archipelago, a feat which he says has not been achieved by others, including Mrs Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle.

His grand vision is ‘to turn Golkar into a modern party’.

Mr Akbar is certainly a party man. But the principal motivation is the allure of power that has an intoxicating affect on someone who craves the rough and tumble of politics.

‘As a politician, I cannot stop fighting,’ he says. ‘If there is an opportunity for me to be active in politics, why not?’

Watergate brought Nixon’s downfall. Mr Akbar, it seems, has done better than his master.

He survived damning corruption charges against him after being exonerated by the Supreme Court earlier this year.

His defeat in the Golkar convention brought him tumbling down. But his survival instincts have kept him alive.

If he plays his cards right, the next battle might well not be his last.

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