'Banyan Party' roots for the long game

The banyan tree has one of the longest lifespans, and specimens dating back over a hundred years are regarded as sacred across the archipelago.

It is also the symbol of Golkar, Indonesia's oldest major political party and its largest.

As such, the "Banyan Party" is looking not just to regain its former strength in Parliament at elections on April 9 next year but casting its sights beyond then.

At a national working meeting over the weekend, party leaders unveiled grand plans for a prosperous, welfare-oriented Indonesia in 2045, when the country marks a century of independence.

These include per capita gross domestic product of over US$40,000 (S$50,000), from $5,000 now; 45 per cent of a population cohort having higher education, from 20 per cent today; and just 1 to 2 per cent of people living below the poverty rate that year, down from 11 per cent.

The party founded by army officers in 1964 to challenge a growing Communist party became a key pillar of the New Order of President Suharto, but its fortunes slid following Suharto's downfall in 1998.

It revived and came up tops in the 2004 parliamentary election, but fared its worst ever in 2009 with just 14.5 per cent of the popular vote, losing ground to the Democrat Party of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

It is now tipped for a comeback, with the Democrats hurt by corruption cases and widespread public disenchantment with the current administration.

"Golkar has gained momentum from the Democrat Party's worsening performance," party strategist Indra Piliang, who heads Golkar's research and development unit, told The Straits Times.

Recent surveys show that if the polls were held today, Golkar would get some 20 per cent of votes, about the same as the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri.

By contrast, the Democrats are likely to get about 10 per cent.

Mr Indra notes that the main problem facing political parties in Indonesia remains the ability to raise funds for campaigning, which will ratchet up in January.

"Golkar has that capability," he said.

Golkar's patronage and organisational network remains unmatched, especially outside Java, enabling it to shore up support and even ferry voters to polling stations.

The party has done its maths, targeting a substantial share among the 28 million farmers and fishermen, 40 million workers, and 20 million first-time voters, with the slogan "Golkar's Voice, The People's Voice".

Leaders have now set a target of winning at least 30 per cent, or 170, of the 560 seats in April.

No Indonesian party has managed over a quarter of the popular vote in a free election.

There is one glitch - Golkar's potential strength in terms of parliamentary seats is not matched by the popularity of its chairman and presidential choice, businessman and former coordinating welfare minister Aburizal Bakrie.

A number of Golkar members still feel that Mr Bakrie's push to be Golkar's pick last year was rushed - and did not give room for other contenders to emerge.

Under the law, parties need at least 20 per cent of seats or 25 per cent of the nationwide vote in April to nominate a candidate for the July presidential contest, or they have to form a coalition.

Golkar is projected to pass the threshold fairly easily, but whether it will have a president is wide open. This means it would have a "kingmaker" role in influencing decisions, but not be able to have its say all the time.

Dr Ari Dwipayana of Gadjah Mada University believes voters will split their ticket - voting Golkar in April and breaking free from party lines to support the candidate they like best in the presidential election in July next year. This could also be why the party is focusing on the long-term picture to win votes.

This includes a "longing for living conditions like those of the New Order years", as deputy chairman Sharif Cicip Sutardjo, who is maritime and fisheries minister, puts it, referring to the stable price of necessities for most of the Suharto era.

Said Dr Dwipayana: "This is a party with deep political roots and wide societal infrastructure. It can wait it out."


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