John Mcbeth Senior Writer

Golkar enmeshed in a political twilight zone

Party lands in the opposition camp for the first time since it was founded in 1964 as fickle political alliances play out in Indonesia

Remarkable indeed that few commentators have made much of what is a milestone in Indonesian political history: For the first time since it was founded in 1964, Golkar - the long-time government machine also known as the Party of Functional Groups - is in the opposition camp.

"It's a very strange feeling," says one veteran Golkar politician uncomfortable with the aggressively adversarial approach taken by losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, who heads the opposition Red and White Coalition. "It's like we're in some sort of twilight zone."

Golkar's arrival in such unfamiliar territory has had more to do with enduring personal rivalries than any ideological differences. In fact, under different circumstances, Golkar would have been a nice fit with President-elect Joko Widodo's Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P).

Too many things conspired against it, starting with PDI-P's woeful performance in the legislative elections in April, which compelled Mr Joko to choose maverick Jusuf Kalla as his running mate, in a clear move to lure Golkar into the ruling coalition.

It did not work out that way. Rebuffed by PDI-P chairman Megawati Sukarnoputri in pre-presidential election horse-trading, Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie refused to fall on his sword and threw in his lot with Mr Prabowo.

Board of patrons boss Akbar Tanjung could have resisted, but his distaste for Mr Bakrie was outweighed by his bitter feelings for Mr Kalla. He was deposed as party chairman in 2004 when Mr Kalla became Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's vice-president.

Indeed, Mr Tanjung offered himself as Mr Joko's running mate but was turned down. As former Golkar secretary-general Sarwono Kusumaadmadja puts it: "It's about trust. Mr Akbar always seems to have something up his sleeve. Mr Kalla is transparent and direct."

The problem is that Mr Akbar, a party man to the core, could probably have delivered Golkar. Mr Kalla could not - and right now there is no one of any stature to lead a revolt among those who might be unhappy with the current turn of events.

With debts piling up around his coal-mining flagship business, Mr Bakrie is believed to be seeking re-election, possibly at a hasty, stage-managed convention.

"Without Golkar," says Mr Sarwono, "he will be swallowed up by the problems he has."

His four rivals for the top post - outgoing ministers Agung Laksono and Mohamad Hidayat, deputy treasurer Airlangga Hartarto and vice-chairman Priyo Budi Santoso - could mount a legal challenge to his current status.

At the 2009 party convention, he was given a year's extension to his five-year term on the understanding that he would need more time at the helm if he ran in this year's presidential election, especially if it went to a second round.

That did not happen - and the party did not follow up the convention's ruling with a separate, legally binding procedure to effect a change to its constitution. Thus, Mr Bakrie's term actually ran out on Oct 8.

Until now, Golkar has always been in government. Originally an army-led group of non-governmental organisations, it was taken over by then-president Suharto in the late 1960s and later won a handsome majority in six carefully orchestrated elections.

In the country's first democratic elections in 1999, Golkar's support predictably waned, falling to 22.4 per cent. But thanks to its nationwide machinery, it secured second place, coming in 12 percentage points behind PDI-P.

Golkar did nearly as well in recapturing the top spot in the 2004 polls. After that, it went downhill, winning only 14 per cent of the vote in 2009 and this year as well - an outcome that many attribute to its failure to rejuvenate and bring in new leaders.

Now, it has ended up in the opposition. Its stay there could depend on whether Mr Bakrie is replaced by someone who feels that Golkar would be more comfortable in Mr Joko's coalition or at least standing on the sidelines.

Outwardly, it seems to have little to gain from sticking with the Red and White Coalition which, despite the ambiguous position taken by Dr Yudhoyono's Democrats, has held together longer than anyone thought likely.

It could be that the party leadership has bought into the idea of being able to depose Mr Joko early on in his presidency, something that could send his young defenders out onto the streets and spark a political crisis.

The opposition could use its current 63 per cent majority to take over all the leadership positions in the House of Representatives and the People's Consultative Assembly, so it is well placed to do Mr Joko a lot of mischief.

But that could all change in a heartbeat if the United Development Party (PPP) joins the ruling coalition, as now seems likely, and if Mr Hatta Rajasa's National Mandate Party (PAN) comes around as well.

Despite concerns over efforts to paralyse Mr Joko's ability to govern, Mr Sarwono has few doubts that he will emerge with a majority.

"Prabowo will be abandoned when the distribution of the political cake is done," Mr Sarwono argues. "He has nothing to offer."

Meanwhile, Golkar's internal struggle is heating up.

"If Mr Bakrie runs again, he will lose," says the Golkar veteran. "Anyone who takes over will be expected to maintain our place in the Red and White Coalition, but it would be a different dynamic.

"We might be on the outside, but I don't see us as the opposition. Being adversarial is not a tradition of the party. It would be unnatural for us. Mr Bakrie has positioned us in a way that has made us a rogue party. He is trying to show that he is carrying out a missionary role to restore the party's dignity."

That's the thing about Indonesia. A strong opposition is part and parcel of any thriving democracy, but the dominant, consensus-driven Javanese culture does not lend itself wholeheartedly to the concept.

Until it can, Indonesians are unlikely to see politicians arguing over competing policies instead of engaging, as they are now, in the playground stuff that has brought Parliament into such disrepute.