If ever an organisation was in need of regeneration and a policy makeover, it would be Golkar. For all of its past history as the late president Suharto’s political machine, it remains the largest and best organised party in Indonesia, with the potential to dominate again.
Yet, after surviving Suharto’s downfall in 1998, when at one point it looked to be going down with him, it has failed to come to terms with the democratic era and remains, 16 years later, rooted in the past and a prisoner of personalised politics.
Under Vice-President Jusuf Kalla and now the increasingly-autocratic tycoon Aburizal Bakrie – both leftovers from Suharto’s New Order rule – the once all-powerful party has seen its share of the national vote plunge from 22 to 14 per cent.
Now, after winning its lowest number of seats, failing to nominate Mr Bakrie as a presidential candidate and ending up in the opposition for the first time in its 50-year history, the party has elected him to a second term.
Anywhere else, a political leader with that sort of record would have either resigned or been forced from office. But not Mr Bakrie – and not Golkar, where a winner-takes-all mentality continues to trump democratic decision-making.
By calling last week’s Bali convention ahead of schedule and crafting rules that among other things did away with a secret ballot, Mr Bakrie was playing with a stacked deck that forced all six of his rivals out of the race.
Leaving aside allegations of intimidation and payoffs, the final spectacle of all 543 provincial and district delegates voting for Mr Bakrie by acclamation could have been taken from the old New Order playbook.
There was more to it than that, of course. As events have shown throughout this election season, the underlying motivation of some influential party elders in keeping Mr Bakrie in the driving seat has been purely personal.
Advisory council head Akbar Tanjung could have joined the revolt against the chairman, but instead supported him – first in taking the party into Mr Prabowo Subianto’s majority opposition and now in his re-election.
Like Mr Bakrie, Mr Akbar is miffed at President Joko Widodo for not choosing him as his running mate. But mostly he detests Mr Kalla for deposing him as chairman after the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono-Kalla ticket won the 2004 presidential election.
That’s why, for all of his so-called peace-making efforts in Bali, he was clearly against Golkar entering Mr Joko’s ruling coalition, which would have been unlikely, in any case, to chop and change the new Cabinet to accommodate a latecomer.
One of Mr Bakrie’s rivals, former House Speaker Agung Laksono, had already said he would join the government if he won. The others had the same thoughts, worried about the party’s chances in 2019 if the party stays in opposition.
Among them were four politicians in their 40s and early 50s, led by deputy party treasurer Airlangga Hartarto and former vice-speaker Priyo Budi Santoso, who will now have to wait even longer to make a clean break with the past.
Mr Bakrie’s motives are easier to understand. A wide body of opinion believes that without the chairmanship of Golkar, and its still-powerful influence over Indonesia’s political and business life, the tycoon is finished.
That’s hard to swallow, particularly for someone as teflon-coated as Mr Bakrie, whose Indonesian ethnicism has helped him survive a face-off with Suharto, a near-bankruptcy and an environmental disaster. But it does explain the desperation with which he is clinging on.
Certainly, there is nothing either he or Mr Kalla have done to set Golkar on a new path. Remembering the sparse largesse Mr Kalla offered during his earlier term as vice-president, many in the rank-and-file would have seen little to gain this time from following him into government.
Mr Bakrie has understandably been less than generous too. Listed in 2007 as Forbes magazine’s richest Indonesian, with a net worth of US$5.4 billion (S$7 billion), his fortunes have slumped to a point where he didn’t even make this year’s Top 50.
Not only did he fail to follow through on his 2009 promise of financing a 25-floor party headquarters and a 1 trillion rupiah (S$107 million) trust fund, but election candidates were also told to cough up for his expenses if they wanted him to campaign for them. Mr Bakrie appears to have redeemed himself somewhat with many of the regional branches by taking the leadership role in the opposition coalition and pushing through a law ending direct elections for governors, district chiefs and mayors.
But it may come at a cost, with the formerly-supportive Democratic Party widely expected to change tack and vote for Dr Yudhoyono’s last-hour presidential decree – issued in response to a public outcry – which scraps the controversial legislation.
The fallout from that could see the Democrats and perhaps the National Mandate Party moving to the centre and leaving the opposition without the majority it enjoys now. One Golker insider says: “It may be the undoing of the coalition.”
As the consummate apparatchik, who helped rescue Golkar from the post-Suharto doldrums, Mr Akbar is no doubt aware that Mr Bakrie will lead Golkar nowhere, even if he has cut the size of the central board from 380 to a still-unwieldy 199.
If Golkar falls into further disarray, it could well finish in single digits in 2019 – except for the fact that no other party, least of all Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri’s dithering Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle, looks capable of gaining any dominance.
The bottom line to all this has become depressingly clear. While Indonesia’s citizens have wholeheartedly embraced democratic rule, the political parties have not. They remain locked in the past, constrained by vested and familial interests and unwilling to regenerate or move with the times.
“The whole political party system needs an overhaul,” says one veteran Golkar politician. “The government should be part of the solution, but how does it do that without being interventionist?”
John Mcbeth [email protected]