May 29, 2023 Last Updated 3:00 AM, May 26, 2023

Bloodied but unbowed

Published: Jul 22, 2007

Dirk Tomsa

Back in 1998, when Suharto’s New Order regime crumbled in the face of economic turmoil and massive student protests, Golkar seemed destined for the dustbin of history. The party had been the regime’s electoral vehicle, and many of those who participated in the demonstrations viewed it as an artificially created and thoroughly corrupt organisation that had helped the regime to maintain a pseudo-democratic façade. Now that Suharto had resigned, many activists hoped Golkar would also disappear from the political stage. But despite widespread public anger and demands for its disbandment, the party has proven remarkably resilient. ‘Golkar is like a zombie,’ says a former high-ranking party member who left the party in 1998. ‘You think it’s dead but in fact it’s always there.’

Golkar resurrection?

Golkar not only survived the democratic transition, it even re-emerged as the strongest party in last year’s parliamentary election. Thanks to the incompetence of other parties and the persistence of traditional patron-client relations in some of Golkar’s strongholds in eastern Indonesia, Golkar ‘won’ the election with 21.58 per cent. The results prompted some commentators to speak of a ‘comeback’ or even a ‘resurrection’ of Golkar. In fact, they merely confirmed that Golkar’s dominance has endured the transition to a post-Suharto competitive party system.

This dominance has been evident throughout the last six years in a number of key political events. Although Golkar was only the second-biggest party bloc in parliament between 1999 and 2004, it still managed to steer developments in its own favour. Golkar secured the prestigious post of house speaker. It also dominated proceedings in many house commissions, contributed to the formulation of constitutional amendments and helped orchestrate the rise and fall of former president Abdurrahman Wahid. Beyond Jakarta, Golkar secured numerous Governor and bupati (district head) posts.

A favourable climate

In order to understand why Golkar has remained so strong, two things need to be borne in mind. Firstly, underlying patterns of national politics in Indonesia changed relatively little after Suharto’s fall. Although the institutional shape of the system has changed, the appearance of a representative multi-party democracy is deceptive. Due to their lack of experience, most new parties have proven incapable of addressing endemic problems such as corruption, collusion and nepotism. On the contrary, many new parliamentarians quickly adapted to the political culture of Jakarta’s elites, promptly succumbing to the temptations of power. In this familiar atmosphere of horse-trading and money politics, astute Golkar politicians have dominated the scene and often successfully imposed their will on other parties.

To best understand the second reason for Golkar’s ongoing strength, one has to leave the shiny lights of Jakarta and venture out to the vast rural areas of eastern Indonesia, where Golkar support is especially strong. Here, politics is still primarily shaped by local gentry and influential noblemen. In South Sulawesi, for example, traditionally powerful families like the Yasin Limpo family, the Halid family and the Baramuli family have influenced local politics and business for decades. Today, Syahrul Yasin Limpo is the deputy governor of South Sulawesi and members of his family occupy positions in the district parliament of Gowa, the provincial parliament of South Sulawesi and even in the national legislature in Jakarta. According to local journalists, the prestige of the Yasin Limpos is based primarily on ‘a lot of money, a lot of followers and a lot of loyal preman (thugs)’. And naturally, all family members are Golkar cadres.

For the party, families like the Yasin Limpos have always played a crucial role as vote getters because they represent the upper end of extensive patronage networks that reach down to the remotest villages in South Sulawesi. By accommodating the key figures of these networks into the party apparatus, Golkar has always secured large-scale electoral support, since many villagers simply follow the recommendations of their local leaders. Immediately after the fall of Suharto, this pattern remained essential¯y unchanged. Few traditional leaders switched their party affiliation as they still considered Golkar to be the party best equipped to facilitate their own power ambitions.

Yet Golkar’s enduring strength in Sulawesi cannot only be explained by the persistence of patron-client relations. For many people here, the party does have some genuine appeal, if only because the other big parties are regarded as too Java-centric. Golkar, on the other hand, has always accommodated figures from Sulawesi in its highest ranks and has successfully presented itself as the defender of eastern Indonesian interests. But according to Dias Pradadimara, an expert on local politics from Hasanuddin University in Makassar, it is ‘the low levels of education and the failure of the post-Suharto governments to improve basic living conditions’ that mainly account for Golkar’s ongoing dominance in Sulawesi. Life for the island’s thousands of peasants had steadily improved under the New Order. Even during the financial crisis parts of the island boomed due to increasing exports. Only after the fall of Suharto did things start to deteriorate. ‘Golkar didn’t do too bad,’ Dias says, ‘so many people think, why not vote for Golkar again?’

Shifting loyalties

In 2004, Golkar still benefited from this nostalgic sentiment and the persistence of old-style patron-client relations. With a vote share of 44 per cent, Golkar remained by far the strongest party in South Sulawesi. But in many districts the party forfeited its absolute majorities and incurred heavy losses of up to 30 per cent. These losses indicate that the loyalties of some traditional local leaders have begun to shift. Although Golkar was arguably still the party with the best infrastructure, many local politicos no longer regarded it as the best vehicle for their personal aspirations and defected to other parties.

The main reason for this volatile behaviour has been a small but significant change in the election law. In contrast to previous elections, the 2004 ballot papers not only featured party names and symbols, but full candidate lists with photos. This suddeýly increased the chances for smaller parties to recruit promising candidates who normally would have run for Golkar. In Pare-Pare, for instance, a Golkar official complained, ‘Golkar has so many good people; it is quite difficult to get a high place on its list of legislative candidates. At the same time, other parties do not have enough candidates, so they approach you and offer you the number one position on their list. Many people who used to run for Golkar have accepted these offers and have now entered parliament for one of the smaller parties. The problem is, people here don’t vote for parties, they vote for their local leaders.’

One of these defectors is Zainal Abidin. A former district head of Takalar district and a long-time Golkar member, Zainal joined the United Democratic Nationhood Party (PPDK) in 2002 after he was offered the top spot on the party’s provincial legislative candidate list. In addition, Zainal was also appointed chairperson of the provincial party chapter. In the 2004 election, Zainal ran as a candidate in his new home district of Gowa where he enjoys high rates of popularity, not least because he sometimes opens his garden swimming pool to the general public. With Zainal as the main drawcard, PPDK secured 11 per cent in Gowa, while Golkar slumped to an all-time low of just 36 per cent.

Whither Golkar?

In view of these figures, it is even more misleading to speak of a Golkar resurrection. To be sure, the party is still the dominant force in the party system. But it seems that in the last few years Golkar’s power was based primarily on the weakness of the other parties, not on its own strength. Now that new parties have started to learn how to play the game, Golkar leaders may have to craft new strategies if they want to keep the party on track for the next election in 2009. However, the election of incumbent vice president Jusuf Kalla as party chairperson in December 2004 suggests this is rather unlikely to happen.

Instead, Golkar seems destined to remain a party primarily driven by its immense appetite for power. Kalla did not win the leadership contest because he had a convincing political program, but because he promised direct access to lucrative government resources. As one excited delegate cheerfully declared after Kalla had won the first round of the leadership contest, ‘tomorrow we will get money’. It seems that old habits die hard.

Dirk Tomsa ( a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 83: Jul-Sep 2005

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