by Keith Leong. First published in The Heat Online 4 January 2015

The year 2014 was an annus horribilis for Golkar, Indonesia’s former ruling party.

Initially set up as a confederation of anti-Communist civil society organisations, Golkar emerged as the political vehicle of Suharto’s New Order (1965-1998). However, it has yet to replicate these glory days.

Golkar won a plurality in Indonesia’s House of Representatives (DPR) in 2004. But the republic’s presidency was won by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) of the Democratic Party, who ironically is an ex-Golkar man. Still, a nominal Golkar leader, Jusuf Kalla (“JK”), became his vice-president.

However, several more Golkar splinters emerged, notably Prabowo Subianto’s Gerindra, Surya Paloh’s NasDem and Wiranto’s Hanura. In 2008, SBY was re-elected despite being challenged by JK and PDI-P’s Megawati Soekarnoputri. Golkar was also supplanted by the Democrats in the DPR.

The 2014 elections saw Golkar maintain its second place in the DPR. Worse, it only won 91 seats, 15 less than before. More gallingly, it could not cobble enough support to field its leader, the controversial businessman-turned-politician Aburizal Bakrie, in the subsequent presidential race.

Despite an adroit campaign, Bakrie could not shake the controversies engendered by his family’s heavily-indebted business empire, including allegations that one of its companies was involved in the 2006 Sidoarjo mud flow disaster in East Java. Moreover, Golkar’s powerful regional political machine suffered from repeated scandals.

In the lead-up to the 2014 elections, party cadres who were governors of the Golkar strongholds of Riau and Banten were forced from office after being accused of separate corruption scandals. Golkar ended up playing second-fiddle to Prabowo, only to see him lose to PDI-P’s Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) and JK, who again broke party ranks to back the winning horse.

Golkar has since been split between Bakrie’s faction, that wishes to remain in the opposition “Merah Putih” (“Red and White” or “KMP”) coalition and another group seen as friendly to Jokowi/JK. The latter argue that Golkar has traditionally marketed itself as an “establishment party” and should hence not go into opposition no matter who is President.

Who Golkar backs has national ramifications. Whether it supports or opposes Jokowi will determine how smoothly important initiatives – such as his maiden budget – will pass through the legislature.

Bakrie’s camp struck first. It went ahead with the party’s national congress in Bali in November-December 2014 to re-elect Bakrie despite protests from Golkar’s pro-Jokowi faction. The pro-Bakrie Bali congress also announced that Golkar would remain with the KMP.

The pro-Jokowi faction then reacted by holding their own “national congress”, which elected an ally of JK, Agung Laksono, as head of the party, proclaiming that Golkar would remain “neutral” in the KMP-KIH contention.

Efforts have been made by party elders to reconcile the two sides but it’s unclear if this will bear fruit. Jokowi’s administration has wisely decided not to intervene in the dispute. This suggests that the matter will eventually be resolved by the courts.

Golkar’s travails present an interesting case study for Malaysia. Bakrie, interestingly, has often expressed admiration for the “Barisan Nasional mode”. Still, there’s a lot Malaysian politicians could learn from what’s going on in Golkar today.

First, it’s risky, even futile, to hope for defections over to your side. Many pro-Jokowi commentators claimed that the KMP would crumble after he won: this clearly has not happened and will no doubt complicate matters for the president.

Second, losing power may not necessarily be a bad thing. Yes, Golkar has failed to regain the presidency since 1999. However, it has always been at least the second-largest party in the DPR.

Thanks to KMP’s legislative majority, a Golkar man is now Speaker of the DPR and the party enjoys a dominant position in the House’s powerful parliamentary commissions.

The party in 2014 still managed to win pluralities or majorities for crucial provinces such as Riau, North Sumatra, South and East Kalimantan. Golkar remains a force to be reckoned with, especially in the provinces outside Java. In the long run, Jokowi will need to court its support – whoever is in charge.

This leads to the final lesson: don’t cling to unpopular causes. In the dying days of the last DPR, Golkar backed a controversial KMP-sponsored measure to abolish the direct election of regional executives, such as governors and mayors.

Stung by criticism of the move, SBY issued a presidential decree restoring such elections. This decree, however, must eventually be ratified by the current DPR.

Bakrie – to curry favour from Golkar’s regional leaders – announced that his faction would back indirect elections (that is, appointing executives via local legislatures) instead. Unfortunately, the continuing public outcry has forced Bakrie and the KMP to backtrack.

This has jeopardised Bakrie’s support amongst local Golkar strongmen, who would have benefited from indirect elections. More seriously, it made Golkar look cynical and cast into doubt its oft-proclaimed commitment to democracy post-Suharto.

So, while the support of your party cadres are crucial, ultimately the people are your real “bosses”.

Indonesia and Malaysia are very different countries. But Malaysians – especially our politicians – could learn a lot from our southern neighbour.

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Keith Leong is a Founding Associate of IDEAS

Image Credit: The Heat Online

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