Golkar candidate pushing to end direct presidential elections withdraws from party race for chairman

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is greeted by People's Consultative Assembly Speaker Bambang Soesatyo during the presidential inauguration in Jakarta on Oct 20, 2019.

JAKARTA - The Speaker of Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) Bambang Soesatyo has withdrawn from Thursday's (Dec 5) race to chair Golkar, paving the way for an ally of President Joko Widodo's to retain the top spot in the country's second-largest party.

Mr Bambang gave party unity as the reason for his dropping out, while sources said the government had intervened to keep Golkar's incumbent chairman, Airlangga Hartarto, at the helm.

Mr Bambang's withdrawal means little chance of passage for his proposal to amend the Constitution so that the president is elected by the legislative MPR instead of directly by the Indonesian people.

Critics say such a system, which was in place under the decades-long authoritarian regime of strongman Suharto, would be a setback for democracy in the country.

Mr Joko, who is serving his second and final term until 2024, said plans to expand the terms of a president's service to three five-year terms through the change in the Constitution was "a slap in the face".

Mr Bambang announced his resignation from the race just hours before the Golkar's National Congress was due to kick off on Tuesday in Jakarta.

"It is hard for me to decide. But for the sake of the solidity and unity in Golkar, I must take this bitter decision," he said, giving one reason as the party's mandate to support the nation's economic agenda.

His announcement came soon after he had met Mr Airlangga in the presence of the party senior politician Luhut Pandjaitan, who is also Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs and Investment, and former Golkar leader Aburizal Bakrie.

Held in the office of Mr Luhut, a close and powerful ally of Mr Joko's, the pre-congress meeting was widely seen as a sign of the president's intervention in the party's crucial event.

A source from the party, who declined to be named, said Mr Joko had also exerted his influence on the leadership race through the presence of his "personal messenger" at an earlier breakfast meeting between Mr Airlangga and Mr Bambang.

"Basically, in every Golkar congress to elect a new chairman and executives, those in power have always intervened through cues or open requests. The process of democracy in Golkar then usually ends as the party has never had a history of conflicts with those in power," the source told The Straits Times.

With the withdrawal of his strongest rival, as well as two other contenders, Mr Airlangga is likely to be re-elected over the lone remaining challenger, businessman Ridwan Hisjam.

Mr Airlangga currently holds a senior role as the Coordinating Minister for Economic Affairs in the Onward Cabinet under President Joko, who was sworn into office in Oct 20.

The former industry minister in Mr Joko's first term is tasked with amending 74 overlapping regulations and laws to attract investment and revive economic growth in South-east Asia's largest economy. His party's support would be key for the government to secure approval from lawmakers for the proposed "job creation bill".

Observers said Golkar will now have a hard time pursuing the constitutional amendment on direct presidential elections without Mr Bambang, its main mover.

"Even if the MPR opens the talks on the amendment, it will be much more difficult. Resistance from political parties in the Parliament has been clearer," said political expert Sirojuddin Abbas.

He added: "Mr Bambang tends to be in line with the political agenda of PDI-P (Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle), while Mr Airlangga and its incumbent committees tend to be in the same direction as the president."

Political expert at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) Wasisto Raharjo Jati said that Mr Bambang floated the idea of amending the Constitution, his "campaign weapon", to increase his leverage in the party, as he is not in the president's circle.

"Now with his withdrawal as a candidate to be the Golkar's party chairman, the plan for the amendment (as proposed by him) will also be dropped from the MPR," he said.

PDI-P chairman Megawati Soekarnoputri had in August this year secured a commitment at the party's five-yearly congress for efforts to reinstate the system where the nation's president would answer to the MPR.

The 1945 Constitution has been amended four times since the fall of Suharto in May 1998. The main changes included the introduction of a direct presidential election and the limitation of the tenure for the president and vice-president to only two five-year terms.

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