Midnight deal over peanuts and dessert


Megawati has offered Cabinet posts and cash for Golkar support, but direct polls show irrelevance of party machinery.

It is close to midnight.

In his plush residence in the suburb of South Jakarta, Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung is munching peanuts with President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her husband Taufik Kiemas.

Indonesia’s first couple, dressed in matching silky batik, are in the midst of cutting a deal with their one-time nemesis Akbar.

As they talked into the night, they had kolak, a popular local dessert of sliced bananas, sweet potatoes and tapioca drenched in palm sugar and coconut milk.

But the offer from the palace was no peanuts.

It entailed eight Cabinet positions for Golkar, Indonesia’s largest party, and a handsome bounty of US$20 million (S$34 million) for supporting the incumbent’s re-election bid.

It turned out to be a fruitful night.

Golkar took up the offer and agreed to join hands with the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) for the forthcoming Sept 20 election.

But the genesis of the midnight talks was a chance meeting between Mr Akbar and Mr Taufik during Friday prayers at the Senayan mosque last month.

There, the two agreed to defeat former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The meeting laid the groundwork for a four-party coalition that was unveiled last week to back Ms Megawati for the presidency.

Apart from Golkar, Ms Megawati’s other coalition partners are the United Development Party (PPP) and the minor Peace and Prosperous Party (PDS).

Backstage deals have long been at the heart of Indonesian politics.

But in the country’s first direct elections, they may prove to have little influence on the outcome even if politicians are jumping on the bandwagon to clinch last-minute deals.

Golkar’s alignment with the President’s PDI-P is the most high profile.

The leaders of both parties have shared interests in blocking Mr Bambang’s ambitions.

After suffering a harrowing defeat in the April 5 general election and scraping through the first round of the presidential race last month, Ms Megawati is bent on crushing the former security czar in the September run-off.

Clearly, lining up with Golkar and other parties offers the palace a chance to raise the stakes in its battle with Mr Bambang.

A PDI-P source close to Mr Taufik, who, after keeping a low profile for months, has emerged once again as the country’s key deal-maker, told The Straits Times that the broad strategy was to marginalise the retired four-star general.

‘Symbolically, it is very powerful for these parties to form an alliance,’ he said.

‘It leaves Bambang all alone with questions being asked why none of the major forces in Indonesia are teaming up with him.’

At the micro-level, each party serves a function.

The Muslim-based PPP is a bridge to garner votes from the 40-million-strong Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), which is splintered in its support for either presidential contender.

Megawati deputy Hasyim Muzadi has been courting clerics and nahdliyin, or NU members, in East Java with the largess of the palace.

She herself has been meeting senior NU officials such as Idris Marzuki and former president Abdurrahman Wahid, who still wields considerable influence in the organisation.

But there has been a growing realisation that significant numbers can only come from a party such as the PPP, which has members affiliated with Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation.

If the PPP is important for the President to capture part of the NU vote, then Golkar, the largest party in Indonesia, is crucial for its nationwide network and grassroots infrastructure.

Together with the other parties in the four-party grand alliance, they hold 307 seats in the legislature or more than 50 per cent of the total number in parliament.

In the second round of the presidential poll, Ms Megawati and her supporters estimate she can secure at least 60 million votes.

Mr Akbar explained: ‘The combined machinery of the parties will give Ibu Mega a big advantage in the election. Bambang does not have a chance if we pool all our resources together.’

The Golkar chairman is driven into a coalition with the PDI-P for a number of reasons.

On the surface, he is concerned about militarism rearing its ugly head in Indonesia again if Mr Bambang is elected into office.

But there are more compelling factors.

Mr Akbar argues that if the former general becomes president, he will use the powers of incumbency to build up his small Democrat Party, which is made of several bitter enemies comprising ex-Golkar cadres who challenged him for the party chairmanship in 1999.

He explained: ‘I see the Democrat Party as the biggest challenge to Golkar if Bambang becomes president. He will do his best to make sure his party and its network grows much stronger and wider in five years when he makes his bid for another term in office.’

On the other hand, the PDI-P, torn apart by internal rifts, is unlikely to pose a serious threat to Golkar.

More significantly, Ms Megawati is serving her last term in power.

A coalition with the PDI-P now provides Golkar with a springboard to capture the country’s highest office in 2009.

At the heart of it all is personal ambition and political survival.

The 59-year-old Akbar is still craving the presidency.

But the immediate interest is to retain his chairmanship that will be up for grabs at the Golkar congress in November.

Delivering a victory for Ms Megawati at the polls only strengthens his position in Golkar, where his rivals such as Mr Fahmi Idris and Mr Agung Laksono in the Central Executive Board are eyeing the top seat.

There is also Mr Jusuf Kalla, the running mate for Mr Bambang.

Mr Jusuf and his clique of supporters are believed to be planning a coup for the chairmanship if the general gets into power.

The threat of a takeover by Mr Jusuf is one major reason why Mr Akbar threw his weight behind Ms Megawati.

For the deal to work, however, it needed a sweetener from the palace.

Clearly, the palace wanted Golkar at all costs and was prepared to cave in to its demands for money and Cabinet posts.

Well-placed sources said Mr Akbar’s party would receive US$20 million to back Ms Megawati – most of that money oiling the wheels of regional party branches that refused to back Golkar’s presidential contender Wiranto in the first round, given that funds were not forthcoming.

The other bait is positions in the new government. Golkar would get at least eight Cabinet seats.

But according to a Taufik loyalist, while Ms Megawati was prepared to share the pie with Golkar, certain posts were ‘non-negotiable’.

This included the finance, attorney-general, state secretary and Cabinet secretary portfolios.

For Golkar leaders, this looks good – much better than what Mr Bambang was offering.

Mr Bambang, too, visited Mr Akbar’s house this month for a midnight meeting, just days before Golkar decided to swing towards the incumbent.

However, the talks did not yield anything for the Golkar man looking for a higher bid.

Mr Akbar noted: ‘I offered Bambang kolak and peanuts. He loved the food, especially the kolak, which he said was very delicious. But he had nothing to give me.

‘It was very easy to choose actually. We had a firm and attractive offer from the PDI-P and nothing from the Bambang camp.’

Mr Bambang has been careful to avoid forming coalitions with any political party, preferring to make deals until after the Sept 20 poll.

His No. 2 Jusuf explained: ‘Golkar has made politics into a tender. Megawati will give eight seats. So can you give 10, they reply. We didn’t want to get involved in that tender.’

The bigger concern for Mr Bambang is being tainted with making deals that ‘smell of the past’.

‘I don’t want my image to be tarnished by associating too closely with status quo parties,’ he told The Straits Times.

‘In a direct election, the leaders of these parties are less important than their constituents, which I prefer to deal with directly.’

And the reality is that the strategy has so far worked to his advantage – even if his enemies are reluctant to accept it.

Grassroots support got him through the July 5 poll, way ahead of Ms Megawati and others that boasted huge party machineries.

If his rivals are building party alliances, Mr Bambang is turning to non-governmental organisations and volunteers to do his bidding in what his supporters describe as ‘people coalitions’.

Each province tells a unique story of how his team operates to garner votes through such linkages.

In Surabaya, for example, the True Democrat Institution (LDS) that supports the Bambang presidency reaches out to the masses by offering an array of social services.

It provides free legal and psychological tests, together with stickers and T-shirts with pictures of Mr Bambang and his Bugis deputy Jusuf.

According to the weekly magazine Tempo, LDS is just one of almost 25 ‘spontaneous groups’ that have sprung up in East Java this year to back Mr Bambang.

In Banten, West Java, the Association of South Sulawesi Community mobilised funds to produce banners and place advertisements in local newspapers.

And in Papua, volunteers set up a forum to campaign in remote areas such as Puncak Jaya, Nabire, Wamena, Biak and Sorong.

To finance the effort, they sought donations from businessmen.

Mr Bambang’s electoral performance in these areas shows how effective such ‘non-conventional’ measures have been.

A senior aide disclosed that many of these groups had been created as far back as two years ago.

‘We have long been preparing for his presidency and decided to establish a soft infrastructure’ that can attract voters.’

But beneath the veneer of the people coalition strategy, the Bambang team is turning to retired military officers and their territorial network to draw in votes.

They are also conscious of building political alignments with key members of Golkar, PDI-P and other parties.

His advisers are pursuing a divide and conquer strategy by dealing with party elements outside organisational channels.

Mr Bambang’s chief political strategist Rachmat Witoelar noted: ‘We prefer to deal with these individuals who have direct access to the masses than party leaders who are interested in nothing but making unrealistic deals.’

Indeed, high-ranking PDI-P and Golkar officials have been in touch with Mr Bambang.

A day before the July presidential election, for example, Golkar figures such as Mr Sofyan Mile, Mr Priyo Budi Santoso and Mr Fahmi held talks with the presidential front-runner.

But it is his running mate who has been most active in courting the Golkar ground.

Much to the chagrin of Mr Akbar, Mr Jusuf has been meeting senior Golkar officials and cadres to court their support for next month’s election.

It has had a divisive effect among party rank and file.

Mr Akbar has been seeking to quell resistance by assuring Golkar members that the party still has a big role to play in Indonesian politics if Ms Megawati loses.

Mr Akbar said: ‘Like it or not, Bambang will have to deal with Golkar. We are the largest party in parliament. For his government to function effectively, he will have to work with us.’

There are no guarantees that Golkar’s provincial branches are following Mr Akbar’s cue.

It is instructive that in the April Golkar convention, he did not win the presidential nomination despite his call on regional officials to back him. How much more different can it be now?

In round one of the presidential race, Mr Bambang won in several provinces that were perceived as Golkar strongholds.

It suggests that the party whip cannot dictate the grassroots.

Direct elections in Indonesia have shown the apparent irrelevance of party machinery that has failed to convert recognition into votes at the ballot booth.

In the first round, for example, Mr Wiranto was on paper one of the strongest among the five candidates. He had the formal backing of Golkar, the Nation Awakening Party and the NU.

But he still failed to get through.

A more united Golkar today might help Ms Megawati close the gap on Mr Bambang.

She is not assured of victory though. Party leaders might make deals, but their supporters might vote differently.

Central to all this is the mood for change in Indonesia.

The results of the general election point to one conclusion: that the old established forces such as Golkar and PDI-P have lost ground.

A genuine impulse for change has swept over voters, cutting across party lines and ideological divides. There is an ironic twist to the whole tale.

A military man is now being seen as a symbol of change.

Ms Megawati, who swept to power under the reformasi banner, is curiously now the status quo.

Mr Rachmat said that grand coalition to support the incumbent could backfire and serve Mr Bambang’s interests.

‘As far as I am concerned, this is great news because it works to our advantage,’ he said. ‘It is easier for us to put a tag on things. These parties represent the status quo. And we represent change.’

Certainly, the palace and Mr Akbar recognise the demands for change in the country.

But will their midnight deal over peanuts and kolak provide the answer?

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