Indonesia’s Jokowi Benefits from Golkar Turmoil

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is keenly watching a tense showdown over the leadership of the country’s biggest political party, Golkar, as reformers seek to to push out coal tycoon Aburizal Bakrie as party head.

“It looks like a battle royale,” said a well-placed foreign source. “The Bakrie forces are clinging to power in the face of a concerted push from within Golkar to dump him.” Bakrie infuriated members of his own party earlier this year by joining a coalition headed by former Army General Prabowo Subianto to contest the presidency after his own presidential hopes were dashed.

Jusuf Kalla, Jokowi’s vice president , is a member of Golkar and former party chairman. A foe of Bakrie's, he has offered to step into the dispute if Golkar cannot resolve its problems.

“I believe they can settle the problem. If they can’t, I will talk to the seniors,” Kalla told reporters on Tuesday at his office. "I hope the party won’t be divided. I believe my friends are mature.”Kalla said there is disappointment with Bakrie’s leadership style, which critics characterize as undemocratic.

For Kalla and Jokowi what is at stake is trying to get the large bloc of Golkar votes in the House of Representatives on the administration's side and away from the opposition coalition headed by losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto.

Numerous politicians within Golkar wanted the party to back Jokowi, fearing that siding with Prabowo would sideline the Suharto-era party for the future. The election precipitated a split in Golkar, which has now broken into the open, with both sides making dramatic statements on live television, something rare for Golkar, which prides itself on being disciplined.

Seven senior Golkar politicians have combined forces ahead of the party’s national congress, scheduled for this weekend, to block Bakrie’s attempt to hold on to party power. They reportedly have united behind Airlangga Hartarto, a young, rising star within the party on the theory that they must unite or Bakrie would be powerful enough to hold his seat.

Bakrie would like to see the seven divided.

The move against Bakrie is a way to break up the Red-White opposition coalition headed by Prabowo that threatens to stymie the president’s legislative program. It is the latest in a series of deft moves by Jokowi to consolidate his power, establishing new cabinet positions to neutralize other ones, pushing through a cut to the fuel subsidy, which has hampered the national budget, and other maneuvers.

“The Jokowi people seem very confident,” the source said. “They believe they will get PAN [the National Mandate Party] and hopefully Golkar on their side by January. The message has been delivered repeatedly to Bakrie, [former economics czar] Hatta Rajasa and even Prabowo - you need to cooperate or face various kinds of trouble. The implication behind the way numerous insiders see it is that Jokowi's government could use tax investigations or other actions against past misdeeds committed by opponents.”

All three major opposition parties ‑ Gerindra, PAN and Golkar - are headed by businessmen - Prabowo, Hatta and Bakrie, respectively. "How long can you do business in Indonesia while actively opposing the government?" said a foreign executive and longtime observer of Indonesian politics. "Not very long, is the answer. These guys will get in line. I expect this will end up in the win column for Jokowi pretty soon."

Prabowo himself has gone quiet, allowing Jokowi’s fuel subsidy increase to go through with minimal disruption, There have been no real street protests and little sign of trouble despite early threats by Prabowo and other legislative leaders.

The move to oust Bakrie “is all being done to save Golkar,” one of the insurgents said. “We want to combine our power to save Golkar from losing the 2019 elections. There are only two choices right now: to win or to lose. We have to face every risk there is.”

The party now holds 91 of the 560 seats in the national assembly. Founded by former strongman President Suharto, Golkar has never been in opposition

“Even if Bakrie runs again, it’s his right as long as there is no intimidation coming from his team or manipulation of regulations during the congress. I’ve heard information that there might be a change in the voting procedure, from closed to open. There’s also a rumor that there will be a different value for votes coming from the provincial and district levels. If that happens, I will object,” said Golkar leader Agung Laksono, according to media reports.

If indeed it is the end of the political career for the billionaire politician, it is a career in both business and politics featuring a long string of dramatics and financial disasters, often staved off through government bailouts by previous governments including those of Suharto and the most recent president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He demonstrated his political clout in 2009 by conflating an attempt to save a failing bank into the appearance of scandal on the part of then-Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, driving her her from her position and stalling tax investigations she had brought against his activities.

The original date for the party congress was set for early next year, but forces loyal to Bakrie voted over the weekend to bring it forward in what critics said was an effort to minimize his chances of losing the party chairmanship as support leaked away.

“This ninth national congress is full of violations of the party’s regulations. The venue and the date have kept changing,” Lamhot Sinaga, a member of the party’s central leadership board, told reporters Monday. Opposing party officials accused Bakrie of attempting to intimidate Golkar leaders at the provincial and lower branches into signing pledges of support. Similar accusations also came from a Golkar youth wing, dozens of whose members rallied outside the party’s headquarters in West Jakarta, on Monday evening.

Bakrie’s aides have denied the accusations. “That’s not true. It’s part of a negative campaign staged by his opponents,” deputy chairman Theo L. Sambuaga said Monday.