Jokowi's ally, critic battling for leadership of Golkar

Billboards bearing photos of Golkar member Bambang Soesatyo have been popping up across Jakarta as Indonesia's oldest and second-largest political party gears up for elections by December. ST PHOTO: WAHYUDI SOERIAATMADJA
Billboards bearing photos of Golkar member Bambang Soesatyo have been popping up across Jakarta as Indonesia's oldest and second-largest political party gears up for elections by December. ST PHOTO: WAHYUDI SOERIAATMADJA

Result of December polls will be scrutinised as party is most powerful lobby in Parliament

Large billboards bearing photos of Golkar member Bambang Soesatyo have been popping up at numerous street corners in Jakarta recently as Indonesia's oldest and second-largest political party gears up for elections by December.

Mr Bambang, a critic of President Joko Widodo, is eyeing the chairmanship of Golkar, now held by Mr Joko's ally Airlangga Hartarto.

The Bambang-Airlangga contest bears more than a passing resemblance to the past rivalry between Golkar's old bigwigs, Mr Aburizal Bakrie, a political opponent of the President, and Mr Agung Laksono, an ally of Mr Joko, since the two younger Golkar leaders are being supported by these seniors respectively, according to party insiders.

The outcome will be keenly watched as Golkar has clout as the most powerful lobby in Parliament, exerting influence among fellow MPs outside and during parliamentary sessions.

Mr Joko's administration started churning out faster reforms, speeding up their decision-making processes, when a change in Golkar's leadership in early 2016 saw the party jump ship from the opposition camp to the ruling coalition led by Mr Joko's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

Golkar quickly positioned itself as a counter-balance by providing a greater bargaining position for Mr Joko, facing pressure from his own party, whose elites were not above intervening in his policymaking.

Mr Joko, popularly known as Jokowi, is set to begin his second term on Oct 20, after winning reelection earlier this year.

In the April legislative election, Golkar garnered about 85 of the 575 MP seats, coming in second after Mr Joko's PDI-P, whose 128 cadres are set to be sworn in on Oct 1. The final number of MPs from each of the nine parties eligible to enter Parliament for the 2019-2024 term will depend on the results of court appeals in election disputes.

About 600 representatives, including the heads of Golkar's provincial and regency branches and executive leaders, will meet at the party congress in December to vote for its next chairman.

"Airlangga Hartarto is submissive to Jokowi's will, while Bambang Soesatyo would be firm and create a better bargain for Golkar," Mr John Aprijaya, a Golkar politician from South Sumatra province, told The Straits Times, arguing that Mr Airlangga's concurrent position as a Cabinet minister, which makes him a subordinate to the President, has lowered the esteemed status of a Golkar chairman position.

"Bambang Soesatyo gets support from influential and senior figures within Golkar, including former chairman Aburizal Bakrie, while Airlangga is supported by Bakrie's old rival Agung Laksono," Mr John added.

Another Golkar politician told The Straits Times that the party congress would likely see only these two names competing for the leadership. He said each has an equal chance as both are gathering support from the party branches.

 
 

"Mr Airlangga makes and will continue to make a good chairman, compared with Mr Bambang, owing to Mr Airlangga's credentials and relative strength as a successful businessman, with a strong academic background, and coming from a respectable family. His late father was a minister," said the politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He stressed that any change of leadership in Golkar could affect the stability of Mr Joko's administration.

Mr Bambang's close ties to Mr Bakrie go back to when the latter was Golkar chairman and Mr Bambang held trusted positions as the party treasurer and other strategic posts over the course of Mr Bakrie's tenure, noted political expert Dodi Ambardi from the University of Gadjah Mada.

However, Mr Bambang is known to be pragmatic and it would not be hard for Mr Joko to get him on board if he needed him later, while Mr Bambang, and any other politician, would have to gain the support of Mr Joko - a leader backed by 55 per cent of 140 million eligible voters - or, at the very least, look like he had his support, to win the Golkar chairmanship.

Many heads of Golkar branches across Indonesia who are expected to vote at the party congress in December are Mr Joko's supporters, according to observers. Mr Bambang has at least once had to publicly defend his persistent criticism of Mr Joko as reminders to the President to make corrective measures to stay in power.

Dr Dodi also noted that Mr Bambang's recent remarks, appealing to party chairmen to give full prerogative to Mr Joko to decide the line-up of his next Cabinet, could be part of Mr Bambang's play on the "political stage".

Mr Joko is expected to fill his Cabinet with non-partisan professionals as well as professionals affiliated with and proposed by chairmen of parties that backed his successful re-election bid.

"You have to look like you don't have personal interest, or short-term interest," Dr Dodi told The Straits Times. "If Mr Bambang later manages to be at the helm of Golkar and Golkar does not get ministers' posts, he would certainly be unhappy and Golkar would strike back at Jokowi."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2019, with the headline 'Jokowi's ally, critic battling for leadership of Golkar'. Print Edition | Subscribe