Indonesia: The Rise of Jusuf Kalla - Vice President, Power Broker


Anthony L. Smith

The Asian tsunami on 26 December overshadowed the news a few days earlier that Indonesia's Vice President, Jusuf Kalla, had been elected leader of the Golkar Party - a party that had once thrown him out because of his association with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. This move takes Golkar out of the opposition 'Nationhood Coalition', demonstrates the political muscle of the Golkar's eastern representatives, and puts Jusuf Kalla into a powerful position. This will be a mixed blessing for the President himself.

Yudhoyono's capture of 60 per cent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election has been tempered by the fact that his political vehicle, the Democratic Party, only took 7.5 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections. To make matters worse for the President, the two largest parties, Golkar and Indonesian Democracy Party-Struggle (PDI-P), had formed a coalition around Megawati's unsuccessful bid to retain the presidency, and had subsequently forged an opposition pact with other smaller parties called the Nationhood Coalition that could count on a majority of parliamentary representatives.

In the shifting sands of Indonesian politics, the opposition pact never looked particularly solid. It has proven to be a poisoned chalice for those involved, although it did give Golkar the ability to seize control of a number of select committees and the speaker's chairs of both the lower house and the Regional Representative Council. But Agung Laksono's selection as parliamentary speaker came at the expense of the former speaker and his then Golkar Party boss, Akbar Tandjang. Akbar, a former Soeharto loyalist and a controversial figure who was once prosecuted on corruption charges, removed a number of Yudhoyono sympathizers from the party prior to his demise in December, including Yudhoyono's own handpicked Vice President, Jusuf Kalla. Akbar's decision to back Megawati in the second round of the presidential election was never popular with a number of Golkar officials. Furthermore, a significant number of Golkar voters switched their votes to Yudhoyono in defiance of Golkar Party wishes. Ultimately the party was unable to control the open dissent that developed, and Jusuf Kalla was brought back from the cold to become party chair, while Agung Laksono assumed the vice chairmanship.

Jusuf Kalla is well known as a member of Golkar's eastern caucus, which has numerically dominated the party since the 1999 election when the party was devastated in its traditional stronghold of Java. Jusuf Kalla's origins in South Sulawesi not only helped his placement on Yudhoyono's ticket - in order to balance the President's Javanese background - but allowed him to take advantage of the inevitability of the representatives from eastern Indonesia seizing control of the Golkar Party. Jusuf Kalla won the chairmanship by a landslide, handsomely beating Akbar and others running for the job, including former General Wiranto. He has also been able to appoint officials close to him to key positions in the party.

Jusuf Kalla's last minute decision to enter the race was apparently prompted by Yudhoyono himself. The President's success in reaching out to Golkar has resulted in an ally at the party helm and a fracturing of the opposition. But not all the president's backers think this was wise. Opinion polls show Yudhoyono dipping in the polls, and the perceived closeness to Golkar-the onetime authoritarian political vehicle of Soeharto-will have hurt him. One pro-Yudhoyono party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), has publicly expressed the position that Jusuf Kalla should not allow his Golkar Party role to interfere with the position of Vice President. Although Jusuf Kalla strenuously denies it, he could emerge as Yudhoyono's chief rival for the presidency in 2009. At the very least Yudhoyono is now rather dependent on his Vice President to forge coalitions on the passage of legislation, giving Jusuf Kalla far greater behind-the-scenes power than the constitutional proscription of his formal position as Vice President might otherwise suggest.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect US Policy, the position of The Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, US Pacific Command, Department of Defense or any US Governmental agency.

WATCHPOINT: Has Yudhoyono created a powerful ally by handpicking Jusuf Kalla for his presidential ticket and urging him to take control of the Golkar Party, or has he unwittingly handed up power to a potential rival?


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