Presidential candidates Joko Widodo (left) and Prabowo Subianto (right) along with General Elections Commission Chairman Arief Budiman (center) ahead of the second presidential debate at the Sultan Hotel in Jakarta on February 17, 2019. Photo: AFP/Eko Siswono Toyudho/Anadolu Agency

Once the all-powerful political machine of long-serving authoritarian president Suharto, Partai Golongan Karya, better known as Golkar, is in danger of slipping to third place in Indonesia’s party rankings in next April’s legislative elections, but in some ways through no real fault of its own.

Party chairman and concurrent Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto faces an uphill battle to deal with the perceived coat-tail effects enjoyed by the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) and the third-ranked Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra), both of which are fielding candidates in the presidential race which will be held on the same day.

Hartarto told Asia Times that the party was still aiming for an ambitious 18% of the vote, 3.3% more than in 2014, perhaps relying on the popularity of President Joko Widodo, the leader of the PDI-led ruling coalition who is still favored over rival Prabowo Subianto in the presidential race.

But party strategists say winning 20% of the seats in the newly expanded 575-seat House of Representatives (DPR) is a more important goal, made easier they believe by predictions that at least three of the 10 parties will fall short of the 4% of the vote threshold for securing representation in the chamber.

Analysts agree that the People’s Conscience Party (Hanura), the National Mandate Party (PAN) and even the Sharia-based United Development Party (PPP), who together share 104 seats in the current Parliament, are all likely to struggle for votes.

Golkar now has 91 seats, or 16.2% of the House. “If you’re talking about real power, you’re talking about seats,” said Rizal Mallarangeng, a close adviser to Hartarto who acknowledges Gerindra may have a slight edge over Golkar only two months out from the simultaneous April 17 presidential and legislative elections.

Corruption scandal

Regaining lost ground is a huge task for a party dogged by an inglorious past history and the worst parliamentary corruption scandal since Indonesia embarked on its democratic journey in 1998.

But for all of its baggage, it is better organized than most parties. ”Golkar has a distinct and genuine voting base,” says one political analyst. “Some people often allow their passions about the party to overwhelm good analysis.”

On the other hand, PDI-P could well increase its presence in the new Parliament from 109 to 150 seats, which would be the most it has won since the first democratic elections in June 1999, a year after Suharto’s downfall.

Entering only its third parliamentary election, Gerindra now has 73 seats, 17 behind Golkar, and has a good chance of adding to the 38 seats it holds across Java and 16 seats on neighboring Sumatra, the two islands which together account for 191 million of Indonesia’s 270 million population.

Although the polls show Prabowo trailing by a wide margin in Central Java, Widodo’s home province, Gerindra has been encouraged by the showing of its candidate, former energy minister Sudirman Said, who won 41% of the vote in his losing bid for the governorship last year.

Some of Gerindra’s biggest gains are expected on Sumatra, where it controls only 16 of the existing 120 seats, largely because of anti-government discontent over the low prices of palm oil and rubber as the mainstays of the island’s plantation-based economy.

Sumatra has six of Parliament’s 15 new seats, two each in Riau and also Lampung, the country’s bellwether province where 65% of the population is made up of Javanese trans-migrants and their descendants. The rest are spread out through Kalimantan and Sulawesi.

If Golkar falls short of its electoral targets, Hartarto is well aware that his job will be on the line when the country’s oldest party convenes its five-yearly national convention at the end of the year.

Moreover, it will be the third time the party has failed to breach 15% of the vote, a far cry from its 74% performance in the last Suharto-era election in 1997, and the poll-topping 21.6% it attained in 2004 when 24 parties contested the election and Indonesians began pining again for strong leadership.

Minority following

Although he is the son of a Suharto-era minister, Hartarto, 56, represented a break from the past when he was chosen in late 2017 to replace previous chairman and Parliament speaker Setya Novanto, now serving a 15-year jail term for his role in the electronic identity card corruption case.

But the Australian-educated engineer has only a minority following in the party at this point and owed his election in large part to the influence of Widodo, who appointed him to the industry portfolio in his first Cabinet reshuffle in July 2016.

An elected parliamentarian from Bogor, one of the cities making up Greater Jakarta, Hartarto has been replaced on the ticket for this year’s legislative election by his son, Ravindra, a Johns Hopkins University graduate and one of his father’s eight children.

Forty-six of Golkar’s 91 seats are on Java, 17 of those in West Java, Indonesia’s biggest constituency; the party is being relied on to reverse Widodo’s heavy 59.7%-40.2% defeat there in the 2014 presidential election when it was part of Prabowo’s opposition coalition.

Golkar holds two seats in West Java XI, the southern electorate covering Tasikmalaya and Garut, where Widodo won only 29% of the vote in 2014, and also has sitting members in eight other electorates where his losing margin was more than 35%.

Golkar-backed Anne Mustika, 37, last year succeeded her husband, Dedi Mulyadi, as district chief of Purwakarta, while Dadang Muchtar, an ex-district chief from Karawang, is running for Golkar in West Java VI, the electorate covering those two neighboring districts.

Independent West Java governor and former Bandung mayor Ridwan Kamil,  47, and his deputy, Uu Ruzhanul Ulam, 49, a previous Tasikmalaya district chief and a member of PPP, have both endorsed Widodo in the run-up to the election.

“Jokowi (Widodo) can’t be beaten in West Java with Golkar behind him,” said Mallarangeng, who was one of Prabowo’s advisers in the 2014 presidential election and now also heads Gerindra’s Jakarta chapter, which has never done well in the Indonesian capital.

Analysts believe it will be difficult enough for the party to regain many of the 46 seats it holds across East and Central Java, westernmost Banten province and the two cities of Jakarta and Jogjakarta, which together with West Java boast about 55% of the 190 million eligible voters.

But that is not the only challenge. After the setback suffered by Vice-President Jusuf Kalla and his Golkar allies in last year’s local elections in his home bailiwick of South Sulawesi, it may struggle to retain some of its three seats there, as well as in other areas where Gerindra is looking for gains.

Hartarto told foreign journalists that he had created a “new and clean” party since he took over the leadership and that the Novanto case and a separate corruption scandal involving former Golkar secretary general Idrus Marham were a “carry over” problem.

Golkar has brought in generally younger candidates for this year’s election and on a recent campaign tour around Nusa Tenggara, Papua and Maluku in eastern Indonesia, Mallarangeng says he was struck by the youth of the party’s cadre there.

‘Smooth sailing’

Golkar hasn’t managed to field a successful presidential candidate in the democratic era but, as Hartarto points out, it has ensured a measure of political stability to successive governments through two decades of turbulent democracy.

Even when the party sided with Prabowo in the 2014 presidential election, it wasn’t long before it crossed over and hooked up with Widodo’s ruling coalition, allowing what Hartarto calls “smooth sailing” over the next three years. Golkar, it is often said, does not know how to be in opposition.

Critics note, however, that while Hartarto may represent a break from the past, Indonesia’s old political culture still prevails – not only in Golkar, but in most of the other political parties contesting the elections, where policy platforms are virtually non-existent.

The resulting democratic stagnation means most Indonesians have little trust in their politicians, exacerbated to a significant degree by Parliament’s blatant and repeated efforts to reduce the powers of the National Election Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission.

In essence, the failure of Golkar and other parties to regenerate themselves is the reason why the oligarchy and what National Defense Institute governor Agus Widjojo calls ”neo-feudalism” continues to dominate Indonesian politics.

It is a disappointment for a retired general who did more than anyone to get the military out of politics. As he said in a recent interview: “There is no willingness to implement good governance because most have failed to groom their cadre from the bottom.”

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