Sat, 05 Jul 2003

An unholy alliance: Golkar with Cak Nur candidacy

Meidyatama Suryodiningrat Analyst Jakarta

News of the affirmation by Nurcholish Madjid, better known as Cak Nur, that he would enter the Golkar Party convention process in a bid to secure a presidential nomination has been met with incredulity, trepidation and abhorrence.

Incredulity over the tactical soundness of the decision to compete in the convention without sufficient political cover. Trepidation that the man bestowed the title guru bangsa (the "nation's scholar") is forsaking his piety for political opportunism. And abhorrence that he would sanctify a party regarded as a vestige of the New Order's co-optation.

Irrespective of whether or not he has the qualities to make a good president, there is no doubting Cak Nur's attractiveness to voters. Indonesian voters are sick of common politicians' deeds: Broken promises, conniving opportunism and blatant corruption. Cak Nur has few, if any, such skeletons in his cupboard. Thus, while people may not naturally gravitate toward him in a demonstrative outburst of emotion, the fact that he is the only nonpolitician among the current rank of presidential hopefuls makes Cak Nur very, very appealing to voters.

On paper, the duet of Cak Nur and Golkar are an irresistible combination. It fulfills the two decisive factors needed for any nominee to defeat the incumbent in a presidential race: popular appeal and a political machine to turn that support into actual votes.

But things are not as perfect as they may seem. Ironically, this marriage could spell doom in a zero-sum game for either.

Let us first look at Golkar.

When the convention party system was first introduced earlier this year as a means to filter potential presidential nominees, the move was nothing short of brilliant. The party was not only introducing a revolutionary democratic process that broke the dogmatic culture of iconizing party leadership, but, more importantly, the process would generate bona fide grassroots support and deflect attention away from the scandal dogging party chairman Akbar Tandjung.

Despite being convicted twice in the Bulog scandal, Akbar's position in the party remains strong. Inside the party, Akbar's foes are divided and cannot muster the needed resistance from regional branches to challenge their chairman.

Instead of weakening, there is a clear sign that the pro-Akbar camp has consolidated its control of not only the party but also the convention process. If the Supreme Court were to exonerate him within the next nine months, Akbar might run for the presidency.

To the dismay of "reform"-minded party members, the convention system has been convoluted to serve Akbar's self-preservation rather than longer-term party interests.

Worse still, there is fear among some party insiders that Golkar's final shortlist of candidates may be omitted altogether from a Golkar ticket and instead be offered as a running mate to the incumbent president. In essence, barring a Supreme Court decision confirming Akbar's conviction or an unlikely internal party coup, the pro-Akbar camp looks very much in control of the party's immediate future.

In steps Cak Nur.

No one really knows the reason for his decision to go to Golkar so early on (he wasn't required to announce his intention to compete in the convention until the end of July). But the move is clearly uncharacteristic of him, particularly as the decision disregards the advice of many of his longtime associates.

Maybe Cak Nur started to believe his own propaganda, falling victim to the "big lie". Or perhaps he came to the conclusion, to quote Milton, that "it is better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven."

Whatever the reasons, the move looks like a tactical gamble that seems devoid of strategic thinking.

Frankly speaking, despite his worldly wisdom, Cak Nur lacks the political shrewdness to compete in the ruthless world of Golkar politics. Worse still, his immediate circle of aides are individuals who have even less experience in the Machiavellian art of realpolitik. His team comprises men of good intention, but they do not measure up to the sentinels in Golkar's coliseum. Furthermore, it is also clear that Cak Nur is deficient in terms of "spending" power, compared with other Golkar hopefuls.

There is a lurking suspicion that Cak Nur may end up becoming leverage in an internal party struggle, that his standing as an attractive potential candidate for Golkar in the election is being used as a pawn to secure support for one faction of the party against another. Notice how, apart from one senior Golkar figure who has been instrumental in prodding Cak Nur this past month, Golkar's senior rank and file have not flocked to Cak Nur's side.

Given this set of circumstances, two scenarios could emerge over the next 10 months.

If, by some small miracle, Cak Nur survives the convention process and is named on Golkar's presidential ticket in February, then a major party realignment would have occurred, moving away from the prevailing pro-Akbar configuration in the party's executive board. At present this scenario seems the farthest, given the acrimony Cak Nur would have to first endure for it to happen. Only a Supreme Court ruling would hasten and facilitate this outcome.

As a Golkar outsider who has not cultivated internal party alliances, Cak Nur, in order to survive, would have to make compromises in order to shore up the needed backing for his nomination. Compromises that in the end could water down his own, lauded reform platform.

The second scenario is defeat for Cak Nur. Under such a script the political constellation of the Golkar elite would remain unchanged. But the party may have to pay a price for discarding a man whom many respect so dearly, especially if Cak Nur is discarded in a humiliating way as part of the convention process. Golkar's image would be severely tarnished as it became obvious that the convention system could not accommodate a truly "good man" and his reform agenda in the process.

This is where Cak Nur may be banking on hedging his political misfortune. He could make it quite clear that Golkar runs the risk of alienating voters if he is dumped from the process. The ensuing wave of compassion could evolve into electoral advocacy that he could then trade to the highest bidder from another political party.

The writer is also managing editor for Van Zorge, Heffernan & Associates.