Commentary by Wayne Forrest

For those familiar with Indonesian politics Golkar is the party synonymous with Indonesia’s economic development. More than a just a political party, Golkar was an amalgamation of various “functional groups” (military, government bureaucrats, farmer’s organizations, etc.) that implemented the New Order government’s economic agenda. Golkar was engineered to be a partner of the government and held a virtual 2/3’s majority in Parliament for 35 years. In the reform era that followed President Suharto’s momentous 1998 resignation Golkar has not held the same sway within the government. Its share of seats in Parliament have fallen below 20%, although it remains the second largest party. Most of its members, but not necessarily its leadership, still want to be partners with the government; its in the party’s DNA. So when chairman Aburizal Bakrie unilaterally backed Prabowo Subianto’s losing coalition in 2014 and declared the party to be in the opposition part of Golkar rebelled. Since then infighting has rendered Golkar ineffective and currently few Ministerial posts are held by Golkar members. But through a process of internal reconciliation Golkar has been revived and now wants back into the government. If Golkar’s (and Bakrie’s) intentions are purely benign–meaning it will support President Jokowi’s reform plan–this could be a boon for Indonesia. However, that may not be the case.

On May 16 Golkar held an extraordinary Congress that brought together the rival camps and elected Setya Novanto Chairman. Novanto was recently forced to resign as Speaker of Parliament over secret recordings that implicate him in an alleged shakedown of Freeport Indonesia. (Prosecutors are still investigating the case) His successor Ade Komarrudin ran a close second. Golkar also resurrected its influential Guidance Board (abandoned after 1998) and elected Bakrie its chairman. Agung Laksono, a proponent of new leadership and reform who was Bakrie’s chief rival within Golkar, is not challenging this move. Other key Golkar posts went to Bakrie supporters who were clearly the big winners. The Indonesian press reported that Novanto was backed by Luhut Pandjaitan, a Golkar member who was an early backer of Jokowi and is currently Coordinating Minister for Politics and Security. On the other hand Vice President Jusuf Kalla, also a Golkar member, backed Komaruddin.

A week after the Congress Novanto announced that Golkar had rescinded its 2014 declaration of support for Prabowo’s opposition coalition. Novanto said: “Golkar will work with the government. We will support the programs of the government.” Bakrie said, “Our expertise is in handling authority – not in mounting resistance to authority.” On May 24th 6 Golkar leaders including Novanto and Bakrie met President Jokowi. Although they professed not to be seeking any ministerial posts the timing was not lost on most observers who have been hearing rumors of a Cabinet reshuffle for several weeks.

It may be too early to speculate on what all of this means but several possible outcomes seem reasonable. Golkar, having observed that President Jokowi has distanced himself from his patron Megawati, (head of the PDI-P, still the most popular party) may be positioning itself to take him in or at least nominate him for reelection in 2019. (One mid level Golkar official actually said as much.) At a minimum Golkar would expect to receive one or more ministerial posts. It may also have bargained for some protection from one or more of the investigations currently under way of several of its high profile members (including Bakrie and Novanto).

On paper President Jokowi now has over 60% of the seats of Parliament in his coalition which should help his legislative agenda such as the long-awaited tax amnesty bill. He has artfully watched his rivals bicker among themselves, saying little, meanwhile pursuing his agenda. There seems to be a steely strength behind his actions over the first 18 months of his administration. Golkar may be patting itself on the back for what it may think is its improved position but the President may see a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It remains to be seen how much of Jokowi’s reform program Golkar will embrace.
(These views are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce)