Indonesia: Golkar’s Power Games and the Chairman’s Chain of Scandals

Partforumseasia: Golkar leader Setya Novanto returns as speaker of parliament despite his corrupt image.novanto

As “Party of the Functional Groups” (Partai Golongan Karya) Golkar was transformed  from a sort of NGO coalition into an electoral machine and power base of President Suharto. It was the ruling party of Indonesia from 1973 to 1999 with deep roots in practically all aspects of governance and statehood, down to the last  village, and of course, with much “experience” in state and private sector finances.

After the fall of Suharto and the begin of the democratic era, Golkar had to struggle for survival, but connections and political skills helped a lot. In the presidential election 2014 and under the leadership of business tycoon Aburizal Bakrie, Golkar supported the wrong candidate  and landed in the opposition. But experience and power instinct are bringing the party step by step closer to President Jokowi and his ruling coalition. Former presidential candidate Prabowo is not amused but as the loser no longer useful for Golkar.

Corruption 4This pragmatic move in itself is normal party politics. No political party volunteers for an opposition role if it can avoid it. And Golkar’s new leader since May this year, Setya Novanto, is back as speaker of Parliament since 21 November. The little problem with this resurrection is that he had to resign from this post less than a year ago after a major corruption scandal involving a big mining company and allegations that he was asking for a 20% kickback. As former treasurer of his party, Novanto seems to have valuable financial skills, useful for the party but as well for himself. What the New York Times called “A Watergate Moment for Indonesia” (LINK) is being closely observed and investigated by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), the Indonesia Corruption Watch (LINK), and the Ethics Council of the Parliament.  Gresnews, a publication focusing on Indonesian legal and political issues, called it “Setya Novanto´s Chain of Scandals” on 17 November (LINK).

Strategy-wise: The broader picture of Indonesia’s complex domestic political scene shows good reasons for President Jokowi to accept Golkar and its controversial leader in his coalition. Golkar as the second biggest party in Parliament adds ninety-one MPs to the President’s Great Indonesia Coalition and finally dismantles the  Red and White Coalition of Gerindra leader Prabowo, the 2014 presidential loser. What took only days and weeks after the presidential election in the Philippines by simple party-switching of hundreds of members of Parliament to join Rodrigo Duterte‘s house majority, has been much more difficult in Indonesia and took about two years.
For the Golkar leadership it was a long overdue step to leave the Red and White Coalition and give up its loyalty toward Prabowo who cannot provide any power perspective in the foreseeable future.
Another serious and festering domestic problem is the turmoil around the upcoming gubernatorial election in Jakarta. Protests against incumbent and long time front runner Basuki aka Ahok. He is under investigation for blasphemy after referring to the Koran in a campaign speech. In his double minority position as Chinese and Christian, Ahok may attract attacks from Islamists as well as from enemies of President Jokowi, whose deputy he was during his time as governor of Jakarta. A first big demonstration against Ahok turned unusually violent on 4 November, and another rally is to be staged on Friday, 2 November. More violence would be seen as a weakness of President Jokowi’s government.

Electing Robin Hoods? The Voting Power of the Left Behind

Partyforumseasia: The presidential election in the United States has shown new levels of campaign spending. While Jeb Bush burned “only”  130 million $ without getting anything back, Hillary Clinton spent more tan 700 million $ on her campaign robin_shoots_with_sir_guy_by_louis_rhead_1912(Bloomberg, LINK). Donald Trump managed to win with a much smaller budget. Is this signalling that money is getting less important than the right target group? That a sort of Robin Hood candidate has better chances than big money? And what could that mean for the widespread addiction to money politics in Southeast Asia?

Francis Fukuyama, in an analysis  in Foreign Affairs (LINK) on 9 November, summarizes Donald Trump‘s victory success as follows: “He has identified two very real problems in American politics: increasing inequality, which has hit the old working class very hard, and the capture of the political system by well-organized interest groups.”

Let us look into some examples from our region where inequality is the norm:

In Thailand, especially in the North and Northeast, the farming population is similarly left behind or much worse than the old working class in America. With generous Thaksinhandouts and promises they were easy to be nudged into securing billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra’s and his sister’s victories which eventually triggered military coupsAnd the country’s many other billionaires were not just looking on but actively manipulating the political market place as well.
Conclusion: The disenfranchised could be mobilized though Thaksin was not exactly a Robin Hood type, but old “Bangkok” elite and military managed to stem the tide.

In the Philippines, landed family dynasties with their private armies, coercion and patronage, have monopolized political power over most of the rural areas and remote islands since independence. The recent surprise election of maverick candidateDuterte Rodrigo Duterte who won against all the money of the traditional elites, is probably due to better information of the poor and an advanced election system run by the Commission on Elections.
Conclusion: The disenfranchised masses have made it against elites and oligarchs, President Duterte  is seen as their Robin Hood and champion . As a former American colony, the Philippines is more similar to the US than other countries in the region.

In Malaysia, due to a sophisticated patronage system controlled by the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and a heavily gerrymandered election system, the left behind rural population provides the necessary majorities in the federal parliament.This vote bank, conservative Muslim Malays, as well as the public service, is being kept loyal by generous government handouts and the promise to safeguard theNajib Nov. Malay dominance against the Chinese and Indian minorities as it is enshrined in the constitution. The rural Malays’ loyalty seems rather  unshakeable despite  the rampant political corruption, culminating in the 1MDB scandal with billions disappearing from a sovereign wealth fund and hundreds of millions being found in the prime minister’s private accounts. Without radical changes in the electoral system the ruling party looks almost unassailable.
Conclusion: The ruling coalition has lost the popular vote but still enjoys decisive majorities in parliament, so it can be seen as a tactical and selective Robin Hood variety.

Indonesia has made remarkable progress in the development of her democratic procedures and institutions since the fall of strongman Suharto in 1998. But the huge Jokowiarchipelago has more than enough left behind rural areas and rural poor. The divided party landscape is characterized much more by rich and therefore winnable candidates and rich “party owners” than by programs and principles. Apart from ethnic and religious cleavages, money politics is a decisive factor in elections and governance.
Conclusion: President Joko Widodo was an outsider candidate who made it against the moneyed elites in the 2014 election. But the wannabe Robin Hoods are probably the Islamists.

Vietnam, one of the last communist one-party systems in the world, has developed quite interesting features of checks on party apparatchiks and performance of the party branches. But entrepreneurial space of maneuvering remains limited and the ruling party is still the best jumping board to get ahead. Competition for power positions and bribing in the widest sense are rampant. Whether daily corruption has been reduced by party policies is a question under debate.
Conclusion: The Robin Hoods by communist definition are in reality not helping the left behind.

The outlier in the regional comparison remains Singapore with very high ratings in rule of law, control of corruption, and good governance. As a city state there is no rural hinterland, but the economic development has of course left behind some groups which are targeted by social programs like housing and health care subsidies and many more. The political competition is not decided by money, but the ruling party, with support of its track record and the well organized administration, could increasingly contain protest votes and win elections.
Conclusion: The ruling party has skilfully institutionalized Robin Hood elements and shows its concern for the left behind in numerous support programs.