Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Golkar Party leader Airlangga Hartarto playing music together. Photo: Facebook
Golkar Party leader Airlangga Hartarto and Indonesian President Joko Widodo marching to same beat on the omnibus reform drive. Photo: Facebook

If President Joko Widodo had selected Golkar chairman and Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto as his running mate, it would have done a lot to cement the 55-year-old leader’s standing with the party ahead of next April’s legislative and presidential elections.

Instead, the president’s surprise choice of conservative Muslim cleric Ma’ruf Amin, 75, and a slew of corruption charges levelled at senior Golkar party figures have left its newly elected chief weakened with a difficult electoral mountain to climb next year.

His task: to pull the country’s second-ranked party out of the rut it has been stuck in, winning only 14% of the popular vote in the last two elections – a far cry from the days when it ruled the political roost as long-ruling president Suharto’s electoral machine.

Anxious to make his mark as the senior partner in Widodo’s ruling six-party coalition, Hartarto has set a target of 110 seats, or 19% of the expanded 575-seat House of Representatives, compared to 91 seats (16.2%) in the current 560-seat House.

Depending on turnout, usually about 70-75% of the electorate, the aim is to capture 18% of the popular vote, up from 14.5% and 14.7% in 2009 and 2014 respectively. That would work out to about 22-23 million voters choosing Golkar.

That’s not the only stern challenge facing Hartarto as Golkar and 15 other political parties — including six new hopefuls — gear up for an election campaign that now promises to be fought more over economic than religious issues.

Indonesia’s Golkar Party chairman Airlangga Hartarto in a 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP

Hartarto’s failure to secure the vice presidential candidacy was clearly a setback for him personally and Golkar generally, even though it was always going to be Widodo’s personal decision, based as it was on fears that he risked losing the support of devout Muslim voters.

Golkar’s cause isn’t helped by the fact that six months out from the election it is polling at only 11%, behind Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) and presidential rival Prabowo Subianto’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra).

While Golkar sources claim most of the party’s 34 regional chapters remain committed to Widodo’s coalition, there is widespread discontent and even paranoia among the faithful over what they feel are efforts by the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) to target its members ahead of the elections.

First, it was the jailing of former party chairman and Parliament speaker Setya Novanto, 62, last July for his leading role in a US$172 million electronic identity-card rip-off, the worst scandal to hit the institution since the birth of the democratic era in 1998.

Last month, the KPK arrested ex-Golkar secretary general Idrus Maham, 56, days after he resigned as social affairs minister after being implicated in a 6.2 billion rupiah bribery case involving a US$900 million mine-mouth power plant project in Riau, southern Sumatra.

Now, the anti-corruption commission is investigating allegations that a company owned by former Golkar chairman Aburizal Bakrie bribed West Nusa Tenggara governor Muhammad Zainul Madji to secure a newly divested stake in Newmont’s Batu Hijau copper and gold mine.

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

Rife with conspiracy theories, the party’s rank and file appear to feel that if Widodo wants Golkar’s continued support, crucial in vote-rich places like West Java and neighboring Banten, he should do something about calling off the dogs.

Maham, the first member of Widodo’s Cabinet to be accused of corruption, was Novanto’s partner in a 2003 case in which the pair were alleged to have removed 60,000 tons of imported rice from a warehouse without paying duties. Nothing came of the inquiry.

In the current case, the minister’s arrest had long been expected when the central figure in the investigation, deputy parliamentary energy commission chairman Eni Saragih, 48, was detained at Maham’s official home last July in what was described as a “sting operation.”

A first-term East Java legislator, Saragih claims to have been acting on the instructions of Golkar leaders to raise funds for the Musyawarah Nasional Luar Biasa (Manuslab), the extraordinary party congress which elected Hartarto to the chairmanship last December.

With Golkar already returning 700 million rupiah (US$47,221) to the commission, KPK chairman Agus Rahardjo says Hartarto and party treasurer Melchias Mekeng, 54, himself a former two-term legislator, will now be called in for questioning.

Plagued by debt problems, Bakrie had taken a lower political profile in recent months. Only last June, trading in the shares of his holding company Bakrie & Brothers was suspended after the share price plunged in response to an unpopular 10:1 reverse stock split.

The company restructured US$172 million in loans it has with Swiss investment bank Credit Suisse in 2016-2017, but its debt obligations still amount to about $500 million heading into the final quarter of 2018. That position won’t change any time soon with the company reporting a first quarter loss of US$24 million.

President Joko Widodo (L) stands with Vice President Yusuf Kalla inaugurating them in a new parliament in Jakarta, October 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Still, Bakrie, 71, remains an influential figure in Golkar alongside veteran politicians Agung Laksono, 69, Vice President Jusuf Kalla, 76, and Akbar Tangung, 73, widely credited with Golkar’s survival after the collapse of Suharto’s New Order regime in 1998.

Then party chairman, Bakrie allied Golkar with Prabowo during the 2014 presidential campaign where it helped the retired general inflict a heavy defeat on his otherwise victorious rival in West Java, the country’s most populous province.

As it was, Golkar stuck with the opposition camp until mid-2016 when Bakrie bowed to internal pressure and stepped aside, acknowledging that “Golkar was not born to be in opposition” – an observation everyone seemed to have noticed except him.

Up until then, he and Laksono had been embroiled in an increasingly heated leadership dispute, the worst in the party’s 50-year history, that was initially resolved with Novanto’s appointment as a compromise chairman.

But after Novanto’s indictment in mid-2017, he was replaced by Hartarto at the extraordinary party congress the following month, where Widodo is widely believed to have played a powerful behind-the-scenes role in getting him elected.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo waves at an ASEAN summit event at Clark, Pampanga, northern Philippines November 12, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Solidifying Hartarto’s position, however, has been a challenge. Despite his considerable faults, Novanto had an engaging personality and, more important, had earned a reputation for spreading the largesse among the political elite, something the new-age Hartarto has not.

But reports that Bakrie is leading an internal revolt that may come to a head at a leadership meeting next month have been met with denials. Golkar’s Jakarta chapter chairman Rizal Mallarangeng, who is close to both men, told Asia Times: “Ical (Bakrie) now sees himself as a mentor, so he will help Airlangga (Hartarto), not undermine him.”

For all the rumblings, it makes little sense to affect a leadership change or shift the party’s course at this stage of the game, with only current House Speaker Bambang Soesetyo, 56, among Hartarto’s few possible replacements.

In any event, next month’s meeting only involves the 150-strong central executive board and leaders of the provincial chapters. It will take another extraordinary congress, involving more than 3,000 members, to unseat the sitting chairman in a party that usually runs its affairs by the book.

The next so-called MUNASLUB isn’t scheduled again until December next year, after the election and after the formation of a new Cabinet. By then, Hartarto will have either proved himself as a vote-getter or could be facing the imminent death-knell of his political career.