Indonesia's Golkar Party chairman and industry minister Airlangga Hartarto in a 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP

Aiming to regain public trust after the indictment on corruption charges of its disgraced chairman and Parliament Speaker Setya Novanto, the new leader of Indonesia’s Party of the Functional Groups, better known as Golkar, is taking a measured approach to the party’s preparations for the 2019 legislative elections.

Once the electoral machine of authoritarian ruler president Suharto, Golkar may still have the best organization of any of the country’s 10 political parties. But it has struggled to win back lost ground since the birth of the post-1998 democratic era.

Now, in confirming Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto, 54, as Novanto’s successor, it finally has a chairman who represents a clear break with the past, even if his late father served as a technocrat in four of Suharto’s New Order Cabinets between 1983 and 1999.

Short of weeding out Novanto’s close associates, Airlangga says he has no intention of rocking the boat too much – at least not now – as he seeks to heal the internal conflicts that have roiled Golkar for much of the past three years.

“This is only a transition period. I don’t need enemies within, so I don’t have the luxury to remove everyone,” he told Asia Times in a disarmingly frank interview. “What we must do is go to the market and win the election. That’s the energy we need, then after that…”

Fifteen months out from the country’s first simultaneous legislative and presidential elections, he says Golkar is only aiming for a modest 16% of the vote, or at least 100 seats, just two percentage points higher than it achieved in 2009 and 2014. Golkar currently holds 91 parliamentary seats.

Protestors against then Golkar party chairman Setya Novanto after he allegedly tried to elicit billions of dollars worth in kickbacks from mining company Freeport. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Donal Husni

Recent polls show the second-ranked party hovering at 12-13%, up from what Airlangga calls “rock bottom” when Novanto’s indictment in Indonesia’s most egregious ever parliamentary corruption case saw its electability plummet to as low as 8-9%.

It is now level with opposition leader Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) Party, but trailing president Joko Widodo’s ruling Indonesia Democrat Party for Struggle (PDI-P) at 25% — seven percentage points ahead of its 2014 election result.

Airlangga has already had his first taste of criticism with the choice of Bambang Soesatyo, 55, as the new House Speaker, given the leading role Soesatyo played in a special parliamentary committee formed to investigate the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) after Novanto was indicted.

But the former law commission chairman has now been compelled to quit the committee, and Airlangga promises that unless Parliament disbands the unpopular body by next month, he will pull out the eight other Golkar committee members as well.

He does say, however, that the KPK needs to respond by improving its management structure and finding a way to work better with the bribery-prone police and the Attorney-General’s Office (AGO), who prosecute non-government corruption.

A long-time associate of former Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie, Soesatyo was a key figure in the businessman’s smear campaign that led to the resignation of widely respected finance minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati from then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Cabinet over the 2008 Bank Century scandal.

Indonesia Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati during a meeting at the Finance Ministry office in Jakarta, January 3, 2017. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Rosa Panggabean

Although he also took Bakrie’s side in a party-splitting feud with ex-Speaker Agung Laksono in 2014-2016, Airlangga insists Soesatyo is the right man for a difficult job. “Bambang has always been a loyal attack dog for the boss,” he points out, “so whomever is the boss, he is the attack dog.”

That may also apply to long-serving party secretary-general Idrus Marham, who was recently made social affairs minister in place of East Java gubernatorial candidate Kofifah Parawansa, giving Golkar an extra place in Widodo’s Cabinet at the expense of the National Awakening Party (PKB).

Marham’s replacement will either be deputy secretary-general Happy Bone Zulkarnain, 59, a one-time West Java legislator, or former Indonesian Special Forces (Kopassus) commander Lieutenant General Lodewijk Paulus, 60, one of the party’s eight vice-chairmen.

Golkar insiders say maritime coordinating minister Luhut Panjaitan, president Widodo’s chief political adviser, proposed another Special Forces veteran for the job, Lieutenant General Eko Wiratmoko, 59, his secretary when he was political coordinating minister.

But although Widodo was hugely influential as president and ruling coalition leader in engineering Airlangga’s appointment, he is giving his Australian-educated industry minister a free rein in his choice of senior party executives to work with.

“Jokowi (Widodo) belongs to the Indonesian people,” Airlangga explains. “He is not on the board of PDI-P. Golkar is a development party and his programs are similar to those of president Suharto.”

Indonesia president Joko Widodo (C) speaks in front of parliament in Jakarta, Indonesia, August 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Another Novanto associate, Nurdin Halid, has already quit his job as Golkar’s executive director to run in the South Sulawesi gubernatorial election, while treasurer Robert Kardinal, a three-term West Papua legislator, is also likely to be replaced in the shake-up.

Airlangga makes no excuses about Paulus, who despite a career in Kopassus – including a stretch in the elite Detachment 81 anti-terrorist unit – has an unblemished human rights record.

He says the pair worked closely together when the party was in crisis, describing him as an “ideal mix” – a retired general, a Muslim from Christian-majority North Sulawesi and now a politician with a good network and a worldly view.

However, the new chairman is reportedly keeping his distance from Bakrie, 71, something he does not deny, but he has no plans to remove him from the chairmanship of the party’s 20-man advisory board, perhaps because the tycoon’s business and political interests are in decline.

“He (Airlangga) doesn’t want Ical (Bakrie) anywhere near the government or the party,” says one senior party figure. “He might take his case to the president, but Ical will cling on because political cover is important for his business.”

Golkar’s ex-party leader Setya Novanto (R) shakes hands with Aburizal Bakrie (L) in Jakarta, November 28, 2016. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Rosa Panggabean

Golkar has undergone no visible rejuvenation since the collapse of president Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998, with former president B J Habibie, Akbar Tanjung, Bakrie and Novanto – all Suharto-era figures – occupying the party chairmanship.

Airlangga now wants that older generation to step back and offer only wisdom and advice as the party seeks a new beginning. He will focus much of his early attention on the forthcoming gubernatorial election in West Java, Indonesia’s most populous province.

That’s where Widodo took a hammering in an otherwise winning 2014 presidential campaign, largely because Golkar, then led by Bakrie, threw its support behind opposition candidate Prabowo and allowed the region’s conservative Muslim vote to carry the day.

While local politics dictate that PDI-P and Golkar are supporting different gubernatorial candidates, West Java – more than anywhere else – will serve as a pointer to whether Golkar’s new leadership can help deliver the electoral goods for Widodo next year as its main coalition partner.

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