Race for Golkar’s top post crucial for President

NEWS ANALYSIS

Party’s choice of chairman will affect Yudhoyono’s ability to push through policies.

THE race is on for control of Golkar, Indonesia’s largest political party.

The party will hold a national congress next month to select a new chairman in what could prove crucial for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s plans to rein in a hostile Parliament.

If the meeting produces a leader sympathetic to his administration, it will pave the way for the former general to push through policies without the encumbrances of a legislature dominated by the Golkar juggernaut and its allies.

The problems he is facing with legislators in his first month in office will be a harbinger of things to come if the party nominates a chairman opposed to him.

That could be the stark reality given that the current Golkar leader and his chief nemesis, Mr Akbar Tandjung, is leading the pack for the post.

Mr Akbar has been crisscrossing the vast archipelago in recent weeks to lobby Golkar branches for support.

‘I am going to fight to keep my position,’ he told The Straits Times. ‘This is a party that I worked hard to build. So, I will not give up my position so easily.’

Sources say he has US$10 million (S$16.5 million) in his war chest to disburse during the battle, largely from the funds given to him by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri to secure Golkar’s support for her re-election.

His critics charge that he has little chance of regaining the powerful position, given that the ground is moving against him.

He might have won some reprieve by getting his candidate Agung Laksono nominated as parliamentary speaker last month.

But for some, it is nothing but a gloss to an otherwise tarnished image of a politician who has suffered on three fronts in the past eight months.

The setbacks: losing out in the Golkar presidential nomination, failing to get the party’s candidate, Mr Wiranto, past the first round in the election and having little effect on shoring up support for Ms Megawati when he backed her.

The seasoned politician, however, is an astute player who has a few more tricks up his sleeve. Given his control of the party machinery, he has pushed through rules and procedures in recent months that will have a big bearing on next month’s meeting.

One of them prevents serving Cabinet ministers from taking part in the race. That effectively rules out several of the heavyweight competitors who are eyeing the post.

They include Vice-President Jusuf Kalla and chief economics minister Abu Rizal Bakrie.

But the palace might attempt to influence the outcome of the congress by backing a proxy to challenge Mr Akbar. There are two others vying for the job – former military commander Wiranto and business tycoon Surya Paloh.

Mr Surya would be appealing to Dr Yudhoyono, given their close links. But observers argue that he does not command sufficient grassroots support to launch a major challenge.

Mr Wiranto is also being courted by the President. The former general might have support from party branches, but he lacks funds.

He spent a large amount for his presidential bid, leaving him now desperately short of funds.

Given the personal ambitions of the candidates, the most likely scenario is for the opposition to split at the Golkar congress.

This plays well into the hands of Mr Akbar, who has all along been relying on a game plan to divide the forces lined up against him.

Party insiders reveal that the 58-year-old politician is keen on meeting Dr Yudhoyono for reconciliation talks.

That is an attractive proposition for the palace, especially if it can diffuse tensions in parliament.

But will the President take the bait?

His tetchy relationship with Mr Akbar might prove to be a stumbling block.

He has suffered at the hands of the Golkar leader in the past, especially in the 2001 vice-presidential race.

Back then, he was promised backing from the party. But at the eleventh hour, Mr Akbar withdrew his support for the former general and entered the race himself.

A senior presidential aide told The Straits Times: ‘We want to cut a deal, but the problem is holding Akbar to his word. He might want our support for the congress and after winning the chairmanship, turn the dagger against bapak.’

The jury is still out on whether Mr Akbar can retain the chairmanship. But whatever the outcome, it will have a major bearing on the Yudhoyono presidency.

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