Looking next door: Golkar’s ageing pains — Farish A. Noor
APRIL 26 — Political parties, being the composite entities that they are, have to change and adapt with the times. At times however this process of adaptation and change may be more difficult for some compared to others, and it is often the case for parties that have been entrenched too long and too deep in the bureaucratic apparatus of the state. One party that seems to be facing a tough time at the moment is the Golkar Party (Partai Golongan Karyawan) of Indonesia.
Though Golkar traces its origins back to the late Sukarno era (it was founded as the Sekretariat Besar Golongan Karyawan in 1964), it truly rose to prominence during the post-Sukarno New Order era of General-turned-President Suharto. From 1966 Golkar was seen and cast as the establishment party of the ruling military-business elite, and Golkar was able to win massively at the elections of 1971 (gaining more than 70 per cent of the votes then). This was due to the fact that Indonesia under Suharto was then undergoing the slow process of depoliticisation and Golkar was used as the catch-all party that brought together members of the military, bureaucratic and business elite of the country.
From the 1970s to the late 1990s, Golkar was the main engine of patronage in Indonesian politics. Many of the other parties were banned or forced to amalgamate into one of the other two bigger parties: PPP or PDI, and as such Golkar, with the support that it had from the state-military apparatus was seen by many as the only valid and feasible means for social advancement. Golkar was then the party that created to new opportunity structures for the political and economic entrepreneurs who wished to rise to the top, to gain positions of power and influence in politics, business or the bureaucracy. It was a standard case of top-down state co-optation of potential opponents to the regime: By expanding Golkar’s membership the Suharto elite hoped that all potential opponents could be lured into co-operation with the state by being part of its massive and growing party-bureaucratic apparatus.
Golkar’s fortunes were guaranteed as long as this arrangement was unchecked and unchallenged, but in the wake of Suharto’s fall in 1998 things began to change for the party. For a start, the post-Suharto era witnessed the rise of new parties such as the Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (formerly known simply as Partai Keadilan), the Partai Amanah Rakyat PAN, PDI-P, etc.
The Indonesian public was therefore faced with many more choices for political loyalty and voting.
Secondly, the de-coupling of Golkar and the state meant that Golkar could no longer count itself as the main party of political-economic patronage as it was no longer the party of the establishment. If anything, its old association with the Suharto establishment was one of the reasons for its drop in popularity. From winning 70 per cent of the votes in the 1970s to the 1990s, Golkar’s share of the votes dropped to 20 per cent by 2004. In 2009 it won less than 20 per cent of the votes.
Golkar today has seen several changes to its leadership, from Akbar Tandjung to Jusuf Kalla to Aburizal Bakrie, the powerful corporate figure who is said to be the tenth richest man in Indonesia. But the party has been bleeding members, networks and resources for a decade now: from Golkar alone a number of splinter parties have emerged: Gerindra, led by former General Prabowo Subianto; Hanura, led by former General Wiranto; Nasional Demokrat (Nasdem) led by former Golkar leader Surya Paloh, who also has a hand in the hugely popular Metro TV channel.
As Golkar fragments, it is losing leaders, members, networks and patronage links as well. Worse still is the fact that all the new parties in Indonesia are appealing to the young, poor and marginalised, signalling the rise of populist mass-based politics in a country that did not have anything resembling a democracy for three decades. Golkar needs to change, but how? And where will its new leaders come from when the other parties — Gerindra, Hanura, PD, PKS, Nasdem, PDI-P — are also actively courting young, upwardly mobile professionals with gusto?
My concern for Indonesia has less to do with the fate of Golkar per se, but rather the worrying rise of populism and hyper-nationalism that has occasionally led to unpleasant episodes like the attacks on the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta. But all of this is part and parcel of wider process of unprecedented social change that none of the older parties of the 1970s could anticipate or forecast.
What this tells us again is that change is necessary for all political parties, especially those that have been in power for long. For radical contingency has a tendency to creep up on nations when they least suspect it, and the comfortable terrain of old politics can change overnight without warning.
Golkar’s future depends on whether it can change and re-make itself. But my cynical friends in Indonesia constantly tell me: “Don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting to see that happen”.
* Dr Farish A. Noor is a Senior Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.