John McBeth – Straits Times
When provincial branch heads chose Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie as the party’s 2014 presidential candidate at a leadership meeting in July this year, everything seemed done and dusted.
After all, his candidacy had been touted for so long that it seemed almost preordained.
Not so fast. In recent weeks, followers of advisory council chairman Akbar Tanjung, who point to Bakrie’s low poll numbers and object to the clumsy way he was shoehorned into the candidacy, have been demanding a rethink at the party’s convention next month.
The rebels are unlikely to derail Bakrie’s bid to succeed outgoing incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But their opposition may mean he will not have the full party mechanism behind him when the race finally goes down to the wire in July 2014.
“There will be some grumbling, but I don’t think it will lead to a direct challenge,” says a Golkar veteran, noting that only provincial-level leaders have voting rights at a convention. “The party line is what it is.”
Given the shift in the balance of power between the executive and legislature over the past eight years, the real prize for many of the Golkar faithful is winning the largest block of seats in the parliamentary elections, which will be held three months earlier.
All this is not an encouraging sign for someone burdened by so much baggage already that he continues to lag in the polls and with few signs that he is making up ground on any of his potential rivals despite an early start.
Party sources say that in an effort to shore up support and avoid embarrassing scenes next month, Bakrie has taken the unprecedented step of guaranteeing that all sitting parliamentarians will be eligible for re-nomination in 2014.
He has also reached out to rebellious elements at the grassroots by saying he will give preference to district chiefs in the choice of new candidates for the national and regional parliaments. Bakrie, 65, was to have received the Golkar nomination at the convention, but the date was moved forward to July to head off a feared challenge from popular former vice-president Jusuf Kalla.
Ibrahim Ambong, a Tanjung ally and member of the party’s advisory board, has said that if Bakrie’s poll numbers do not improve, either the convention or next year’s leadership meeting should reconsider the party’s options.
The one obvious black mark against Bakrie is the role his drilling firm played in triggering the mud volcano which has devastated villages around Sidoarjo in East Java, the country’s second-biggest electorate.
While the flow has now slowed to about 10 percent of what it was, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) last month wrapped up a three-year probe by declaring that the 2006 disaster was man-made and a human rights violation.
The commission found the company and the government had failed to guarantee the rights of thousands of local residents and said Lapindo had paid only 2.9 trillion rupiah (US$302 million) of an agreed 3.8 trillion rupiah in compensation.
For someone who has seen his personal fortune decline from a peak of $5 billion to the current estimate of $900 million in the last few years, there has been bad news on the business front as well.
Falling coal prices have seemingly exposed management and transparency issues in Bakrie’s London-listed Bumi Resources, with the flagship suffering a staggering net loss of $322 million in the first half of this year.
Bumi has shrugged off speculation that it might be headed for bankruptcy. Analysts say the problem lies with the firm’s derivative portfolio and not with its cash flow, a view reinforced by a 10 percent revenue increase over the same period.
Still, with shares of other Bakrie companies falling sharply in Jakarta on concerns over heavy debt repayments, the pressure he is under may account for persistent rumors that the fit-looking wheeler-dealer is suffering from health problems.
As the country’s most prominent pribumi or indigenous Indonesian businessman, Bakrie has always enjoyed the inside running in a world dominated by ethnic Chinese corporates. What Bakrie wants, he usually gets – at least as far as business is concerned.
That, and his uncanny ability to extricate himself from tight financial spots, raises troubling questions about conflict of interest and his suitability to lead a country struggling with corruption, poor governance and a blighted reform program.
Certainly, it was Bakrie’s money and not his track record in Golkar that won him the chairmanship in 2009. Since then, he has run the party through a circle of trusted associates, many of whom cannot be called true Golkar stalwarts either.
Akbar is cut from wholly different cloth, a dyed-in-the-wool party man who still spends much of his time criss-crossing the country hobnobbing with the district branches from where he draws most of his support.
Despite his annoyance at being pushed aside during the nomination process, Akbar is not seeking to undermine Bakrie.
“Akbar’s concern is the unity of the party,” says one associate. “He is fully aware that his actions could lead to an open split.”
More than anyone, Akbar kept the Golkar flame burning in the aftermath of the fall of president Suharto, who had used the party as the bedrock of his political power during much of his 32-year rule.
After winning a consistent 60-74 percent of the vote in those years, Golkar fell to 22.4 percent in the first democratic elections in 1999, 21 percent in 2004 and only 14.4 percent in 2009 when Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party topped the polls.
Now, with the President stepping down and the Democrats battered by graft charges, Golkar hopes to share with the Indonesian Democrat Party-Struggle a lion’s share of the spoils from the majority party’s slide in popularity.
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times