Final Pairings for President, Golkar in Turmoil
Deadline drama in Indonesia as Bakrie's Golkar backs Prabowo
23 May 2014
By: A Lin Neumann

The dramatic decision on May 19 by politician-tycoon Aburizal Bakrie to put the venerable Golkar Party he chairs into a last-minute coalition with retired General Prabowo Subianto’s presidential ticket appeared to be a stunning change in the race for president of Indonesia.

It seemed to signal that Prabowo could gain ground on Jakarta Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the front runner in what is now a two-man race, using Golkar’s considerable clout.  But Bakrie’s decision angered many senior Golkar Party officials and seems likely to split the party, if not formally at least for the campaign period. Bakrie himself is facing a challenge to his continued chairmanship of Golkar over the move and it seems likely he can only deliver a percentage of the party’s machinery to the Prabowo cause.

The coalition decision removed Bakrie from what seemed a futile run for president and left just two men standing: Prabowo, who relishes his image as a tough former soldier who flourished during the Suharto days; and Joko, the outsider with a clean image who has reinvigorated politics for many people here.

Many inside Golkar find Prabowo distasteful for a variety of reasons and see Golkar’s future as more assured if it aligns with the reform-minded and popular Joko. “This is an important election and it is now also about idealism. We should be with Jokowi if we aren’t going to run our own candidate,” said one senior Golkar official.

In order to put a candidate on the ballot for president, a party or a coalition of parties must win 20 percent of the seats or 25 percent of the popular vote in the legislative elections that precede the presidential balloting. Because no party reached that threshold – PDI-P narrowly missed, Golkar finished No. 2, Prabowo’s Gerindra Party was further down – political parties have been scrambling to form coalitions to get on the ballot. The deadline for that process was Tuesday and Indonesians now know what to expect when they go to the polls on July 9.

In the backdoor talks to define the tickets after the April 9 legislative elections, Bakrie’s action was far and away the most dramatic, but the entire spectacle of alignment and realignment was secretive and enmeshed in a culture of trading money and favors, say many who are inside the system.

The political realities left Joko, who is running under the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chaired by former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, with veteran politician Jusuf Kalla as his No. 2. Kalla, a savvy insider and former Golkar Party chairman, was vice president under outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during his first term from 2004-2009.

Kalla should help Joko attract some Golkar support, and he is felt to be an effective political operator, but there is little in the 72-year-old’s background to suggest he is out to reform anything.

Many of Joko’s supporters are bitterly disappointed over the choice. They had hoped the party would choose Abraham Samad, the respected head of the Corruption Eradication Commission, or someone with similar reform credentials. “This is just old politics,” said one key Joko backer after Kalla’s selection was finalized on Sunday.

Prabowo will run with another well-connected political operator, Hatta Rajasa, a businessman and head of the small National Mandate Party, whose daughter is married to Yudhoyono’s youngest son. It is thought that Hatta gives Prabowo the tacit support of Yudhoyno, whose scandal-tarred Democratic Party did not join a coalition.

Prabowo, who has been running for president more or less constantly for a decade, is still 10-15 points behind Joko in opinion polls with the election less than two months away. He has attracted four parties to his side, the largest by far being Golkar. He has thundered away at nationalist themes, attacked his opponent for being weak, courted parties with promises of cabinet portfolios and presumably spent tens of millions of dollars in his quest.

But the soft-spoken Joko, a local politician turned national phenomenon, has barely been dented by the attacks and his lead remains substantial as the campaign proper gets underway in early June.

Pollsters and other analysts note that for all the drama of coalition building, Indonesia’s system of direct presidential elections since 2004 has rendered parties less important than they once were, other than as vehicles for raising money and controlling the legislature.

In a poll taken immediately after the April elections, the respected Saiful Mujani Group found Joko winning a majority of the vote from all 12 active national parties except Prabowo’s Gerindra and Golkar – and with Bakrie out of the race and Golkar split he may very well grab a large chunk of the Golkar vote.

The lasting outcome of the coalition drama may be the end of Bakrie’s political career. A businessman who has used politics for more than two decades to help his corporate interests, Bakrie found himself unable to secure even a vice presidential slot with any major party.

Given a “mandate” by Golkar to cut a deal or sit out the race, Bakrie first told party leaders a deal with Prabowo was out of the question and then reversed himself without further consultation. Prabowo offered Golkar eight cabinet portfolios, including a new post of “senior minister” for Bakrie, should he win, party insiders say.

But Bakrie went too far, according to a very senior Golkar politician. “I am not happy with this,” said the politician. “And I told him so.” Party leaders learned of the deal from news reports late Monday morning.

“We are split now,” the man said of Golkar. “Personally, I support Jokowi and Kalla.” The pro-Joko faction of the party “will go down to the village level to support our choice,” he said, adding that some party leaders are trying to oust Bakrie from his chairman post before his term ends in October 2015. The split has become public with the two sides trading barbs in the press.

Given the bitter reaction inside Golkar to the Prabowo coalition deal, PDI-P strategists say they remain confident.  “It’ still ours,” said a political veteran who advises PDI-P and raises money for Jokowi. “We’ll get a lot of the Golkar vote anyway. I’d say we have a 90 percent chance of victory, unless Jokowi makes a bad mistake.”

This article originally appeared in Edge Review, a weekly digital magazine covering Southeast Asia.


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