Indonesian students burn a Golkar party flag in front of their campus in Jakarta in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Choo Youn-Kong

New Golkar party chairman Airlangga Hartarto followed his father, then state administration minister and later economic coordinating minister Hartarto Sastrosoenarto, into Indonesia’s ruling party in 1997 – a year before the downfall of long-serving authoritarian leader president Suharto.

Like his father, he studied engineering, earning a bachelor’s degree at Jogjakarta’s Gadja Mahda University and separate master’s degrees in management technology and business administration from Australia’s Monash and Melbourne universities.

He worked in various business enterprises ranging from fertilizer to metals and tapioca starch until his election to Parliament in 2004, representing the West Java electorate of Bogor. He has since served three terms, assigned at various times to the House commissions on industry, mineral resources, education and finance commissions.

He was appointed industry minister in a July 2016 Cabinet reshuffle, but at this point does not appear to have presidential ambitions. On January 16, he spoke exclusively with Asia Times’ contributor John McBeth on his new appointment as Golkar leader and the political road ahead. Excerpts follow:

Given its gravity, how badly has Golkar been hurt by ex-House Speaker and Golkar chairman Setya Novanto’s parliamentary corruption case?

We’ve already hit rock bottom. Our electability went down to 8-9% when Novanto was caught, now we’re at 12.5%. We calculate getting about 16% of the vote in next year’s elections, or more than 100 seats in Parliament. Getting 10 seats or more shouldn’t be a problem.

What is the expected impact of holding simultaneous legislative and presidential elections for the first time in 2019?

It will be a first experience for all the parties. The presidential candidate and the supporting parties will have to be coupled, they can’t be de-coupled, because you can’t run a simultaneous campaign.

The one more appealing to the public will be the presidential election. If you’re not part of that, then your electability to Parliament will be less. There will be no horse trading afterwards. We’re not trading horses any more.

How important are this June’s regional elections?

The local elections are going to be very important as a test event for the party prior to the 2019 elections. It will allow us to evaluate the party organization.

How do you counter the creeping Islamization of Indonesian politics, as shown in last year’s Jakarta gubernatorial elections?

It’s the only weapon the opposition has. If it doesn’t work in West Java (during the local elections), then it won’t work in 2019.

Why has Golkar failed to build on the comeback it made in the 2004 legislative elections and has remained at a stagnant 14% of the vote since then?

The problem is leadership. A party is about leadership as well as the quality of its candidates. Since Akbar (former chairman Akbar Tanjung, who served between 1999 and 2004), the leadership has not been that strong, especially on Java. That’s the lesson we have learned.

Is that also the reason why you have not put forward a presidential candidate in recent years?

These days, a presidential candidate has to have popular appeal. It’s the image and public perception you have to worry about. We haven’t been able to produce that, so we’re still committed to supporting the current president [Joko Widodo]. It is better for a president to have two terms so he can finish his programs. I think in 2024 we will propose our own candidate.

What changes will you make to help rejuvenate the party?

We have to put fresh blood into the (300-strong) central board. We have to recruit the younger generation, so we want people in their 50s and also the generation before that.

Isn’t it a little strange that the president has such an influence over what happens in Golkar when he belongs to the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P)?

Jokowi (President Widodo) belongs to the Indonesian people. He is not on the board of PDI-P. Golkar will support an agent of development. Golkar is a development party and his (Widodo’s) programs are similar to those of [former] president Suharto.

Is it possible that President Widodo could jump from one party to another (if PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri continues to pressure him to choose a running mate he doesn’t want)?

I have no comment on that.