John McBeth - Straits Times
When Golkar's advisory board sent a two-page letter to the central board several weeks ago on the subject of chairman Aburizal Bakrie's stagnant poll numbers, it was careful to question his electability, not the decision to nominate him as the candidate for the 2014 presidential election.
The distinction was clearly lost on annoyed Bakrie loyalists — even if veteran advisory board chairman Akbar Tanjung has been anxious to avoid an open split in the New Order machine he is credited with saving after the fall of President Suharto in 1998.
In essence, the letter from the 24 party elders suggests the grossly swollen 350-man central board go back and review Bakrie's chances in early July, one year after provincial leaders chose him as Golkar's candidate and a year out from the election itself.
They have a valid reason for doing so. Bakrie's poll numbers have lingered at the 7 percent mark for more than a year now, rising only 0.5 percent last April, after he killed off a fuel price increase in what appeared to be a naked quest to boost his popularity.
Akbar believes Bakrie has to come somewhere near matching the party's latest 20.9 percent rating if he is to compete with prospective rivals like Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) patron Prabowo Subianto and Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Ever the party man, with a Golkar career spanning 35 years, Akbar did not openly object to Bakrie's nomination. But he has maintained all along that the chairman's candidacy should depend on how he is viewed in the court of public opinion.
One Golkar veteran likens Akbar to an apparently sleepy cat who pounces when his victim least expects it. His mostly district-level supporters may not be able to vote on the choice of a presidential candidate, but they do have a powerful voice.
Several sources claim Bakrie loyalists caused serious disquiet in party ranks by seeking to massage a recent internal survey by well-regarded pollster Burhanudin Muhtadi, giving the candidate a grossly inflated 18 percent approval rating.
Former trade minister Luhut Panjaitan, the retired general who heads the informal Bakrie success team, was not at the advisory board meeting that came up with the recommended deadline. But neither did he lodge an objection to the draft circulated among absentee members.
Under party statutes, the central board is meant to consult with the advisers on all important issues. While that understanding was adhered to in the first two years of Bakrie's chairmanship, it now appears to have been abandoned.
The only response so far has come from senior party executive Hajriyanto Tohari, who insists that all major decisions, including that of Bakrie's running mate, be made after the legislative elections, which take place three months before the presidential vote.
Indonesian voters do not like wealthy businessmen for a start, but much of Bakrie's notoriety among grassroots voters stems from the mud volcano his drilling company triggered in East Java in 2006, which devastated Surabaya's industrial suburb of Sidoarjo.
Financially or otherwise, he is certainly adept at riding out trouble. A member of Luhut's team is former women's affairs minister and National Awakening Party (PKB) lawmaker Khofifah Parawansa, whose East Java 1 electorate covered Sidoarjo.
Now the head of the women's wing of mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Khofifah barely said anything to support Sidoarjo's homeless residents in the final three years of her parliamentary term. Neither did NU, for that matter.
Because a Bakrie poll boost is highly unlikely, the electability issue will not be going away. Sources close to Akbar say he is worried it will become a drain on the party and its prime goal of winning 140 seats in the 560-seat Parliament, 15 more than now.
The candidate's money problems, centered on the struggle for control of his corporate flagship Bumi Resources, have also left party stalwarts wondering what effect they will have on Golkar's campaign war chest.
With decision making now mostly confined to his inner circle, the sources say Bakrie has failed to honor earlier promises of building a 24-floor party headquarters and establishing a 1trillion rupiah (US$102 million) trust fund to cover recurring administrative costs.
What has rankled many Golkar branches even more is a recent leadership ruling that says candidates for the 2014 elections will have to fork out money for Bakrie's travel and hotel expenses if they want him to campaign on their behalf.
There has also been criticism of policy chairman Rizal Mallarangeng's outspoken support for his brother, former sports minister Andi Mallarangeng, who resigned last month over charges of misuse of power in the Hambalang corruption case.
Rizal Mallarangeng has questioned why the Democratic Party chairman Anas Urbaningrum remains free, despite being implicated in a scandal that has already led to the jailing of the party's treasurer Muhammad Nazarrudin and deputy secretary-general Angelina Sondakh.
Bakrie is bucking a political trend set most notably by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose personal popularity was a key factor in the Democrats securing 20.8 percent of the popular vote in 2009 — a whopping 13.7 percent increase over its first election in 2004.
Apparently unable to ally himself with any of the major parties at this point, front runner Prabowo is looking to catch the same wave, hoping his own popularity will push Gerindra well beyond its modest 4.4 percent showing in 2009, and at least into double figures.
The outcome of the legislative elections will be intriguing. There are already signs that religious-based parties are losing ground. But most of the focus will be on parties that pick up the votes the the Democratic Party is sure to shed as a result of its fall from grace.
Golkar and PDI-P are obvious beneficiaries, but Gerindra will be looking to share in the windfall, with Prabowo pointedly asserting that only six of the party's 710 national and local politicians have been tainted by corruption.
And they, he says, have all been sacked.
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times
John McBeth - Straits Times