Fri, 09 May 2003

Golkar's primary election: Akbar Tandjung's final battle

Budiman Moerdijat, Consultant, Jakarta

When the meeting of Golkar's leadership decided last week to hold its party convention to select its presidential candidate in February 2004, analysts and the media were quick to point out that it was the first sign of defeat of the party's convicted boss, Akbar Tandjung.

It is an open secret that Akbar, who has been sentenced to three years in jail for graft, wanted the convention to be held after the parliamentary election in April 2004. This would have bought him more time pending his appeal to the Supreme Court, and would have given him the opportunity to cut political dealings with other parties in the event that Golkar lost the parliamentary election.

But a closer look beneath the surface would reveal that Akbar has not completely lost the game, despite having had to bow to rivals' demands at holding the convention on an earlier date.

As party chairman, he still has everything at his disposal. In fact, he could be the biggest stumbling block to those who want to run as the Golkar candidate in the country's first presidential election next year. The consummate politician will undoubtedly make sure that the convention will be held according to his terms.

An indication of Akbar's resolve that he will not give up the fight easily was apparent during last week's leadership meeting, when he refused to agree to demands made by other party officials that the convention be held in October this year. When he did eventually compromise to having the Convention in February, earlier than he wanted, he succeeded in convincing regional party chapters that it should be held in two stages.

The first stage, or a pre-convention, planned in October this year, is to short-list the nominees to five people. In the Final convention in February, a total of 524 officials from the party's central board, regional chapters and factions will elect the Golkar presidential candidate out of the five.

Splitting the convention into two stages is a well-calculated move by Akbar. This means the candidates will have to commit themselves to a longer and a costly political battle.

Like it or not, the five people who will be nominated in October will have to do all they can -- politically and financially -- to win the final convention in February. They must also brace themselves for what could be an ugly journey towards the final convention, with Akbar and his loyalists threatening deceit at every turn.

However, there will be an incentive, of course, to encourage the losers to stay on with the party even after the convention. Akbar has suggested that they could be offered the position of running mate to presidential candidates from parties other than Golkar, namely the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan).

This means that whoever loses in the convention -- if he or she is not a running mate to Golkar's presidential candidate -- can choose to run as incumbent President Megawati Soekarnoputri's vice presidential candidate in the 2004 election.

This scenario is possible, even in the event that Golkar loses the parliamentary election -- the party knows that it would be the first choice for PDI Perjuangan, the country's largest party, in forming a coalition.

Akbar has also come up with more incentives for the other losers: Positions in the Cabinet. The aim is clear that he intends to buy their loyalty to the party and prevent them from sabotaging its campaign.

He promises that all nominees would receive some sort of position, hence eliminating the possibility of sidelining anyone -- which, in the tradition of Indonesian politics, often leads to party infighting.

But, as the old saying goes, there is no free lunch in politics. Those interested in these offers would be expected to make large contributions to the party in the run-up to the legislative election.

The two-stage convention has left non-party candidates with no other choice than to suck up to the party leadership.

This picture once again tells us that Akbar, as a first-rate tactician, is still capable of turning predicament into opportunity, despite his legal status and internal rifts in the party.

Another factor that will definitely be exploited by Akbar is the fact that the men whose names have been circulating as possible presidential candidates for Golkar are somewhat outsiders to the party.

They include Muslim scholar Nurcholish Madjid, Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Jusuf Kalla, Minister of Communications Agum Gumelar, former TNI chief Gen. (ret) Wiranto, Yogyakarta Governor Hamengkubuwono X and media tycoon Surya Paloh.

In this context, it is safe to assume that none of the potential candidates have any real control of the internal workings of the party, while Akbar and his loyalists still have a very strong grip on the party.

In addition, the political skills of these possible contenders are also largely untested, while political maneuvers appear to be the key to success within Golkar, which is known to have cultivated some skillful politicians.

Akbar also has another significant edge over the non-party candidates: He commands the loyalty of most regional party chapters, whose chairmen owe him a great many favors for helping to put them in power.

At the end of the day, it is the candidate who makes a concession with Akbar who will win the coveted candidacy, because Akbar never had any real intention to have a fully democratic Convention.

The writer is now working as consultant at Jakarta-based political risk and government relations consulting firm Van Zorge Heffernan and Associates.