| TANGERANG, Indonesia
TANGERANG, Indonesia May 21 There are many ways
to describe Indonesia's Aburizal Bakrie: multi-millionaire
businessman, global mining tycoon, heavyweight contender for the
presidency in 2014. One description that does not spring to mind
is man of the common people.
So when Bakrie strode into a railway station in south
Jakarta last week and slapped the equivalent of one U.S. dollar
down on the counter for a ticket, it was a moment of political
It also signalled an early step in the march to presidential
elections in mid-2014 in the world's most populous
Muslim-majority nation. Secular Indonesia, a hot favourite of
international investors, is a sprawling archipelago of largely
untapped mineral riches, an increasingly wealthy middle class
and an economic growth rate last year of 6.5 percent.
But in a country in which it is deemed unseemly to openly
declare ambition, Bakrie, chairman of the nationalist Golkar
Party, stressed he was merely testing the waters.
"It is not yet a campaign," the 65-year-old told Reuters.
"The purpose of the trip is to give a speech, a motivation
speech to ... high school students, to meet small vendors, to
see also the agriculture, to see what their problems are so that
I can tell my legislators," he said.
In fact, Bakrie was doing all the things that politicians do
on the campaign trail. He was also confronting what his aides
say is an obstacle on the road to the presidency: the perception
that as a member of Indonesia's elite he is out of touch with
Bakrie is one of Indonesia's wealthiest men, ranked number
30 by Forbes magazine with a net worth of around $900 million.
He is considered one of the most successful pribumi, or native
Indonesian, businessmen in a country where commerce is dominated
by ethnic Chinese.
Until 2004, Bakrie headed the mining, palm oil and
telecommunications conglomerate founded by his father Achmad,
that is associated with London-listed coal venture Bumi Plc
. Operations are now overseen by a brother.
Early opinion polls put Bakrie trailing in the list of
possible candidates to take over from President Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono after his second and final term, but with the power of
Golkar behind him and his own resources, he is seen as the man
Golkar, the second biggest party in Yudhoyono's coalition,
was the political vehicle of strongman President Suharto, who
ruled the archipelago for over three decades until 1998.
Yudhoyono is yet to endorse a candidate from his Democrat
Party; however there are some familiar names in the running.
The opposition Greater Indonesia Movement Party has named
businessman and former general Prabowo Subianto, once married to
a daughter of Suharto, as its candidate.
The opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle is
divided in its support between former President Megawati
Sukarnoputri, daughter of the country's first president, and her
own daughter, Puan Maharani.
Neither woman has said she will seek the party's nomination.
Bakrie, who has served in cabinet as Yudhoyono's chief
economic minister, has first to win Golkar's nomination for 2014
at a convention likely next month. To do so, he must overcome
resistance in part from senior party leader Akbar Tandjung, but
that is not seen as a problem.
"He is very likely to become the presidential candidate
because nobody is as strong as him in Golkar," said Sunny
Tanuwidjaja of the Centre for Strategic and International
Studies, a think tank based in Jakarta.
The party is also in the midst of a rebuilding exercise. Its
presidential candidate in 2009, Jusuf Kalla, secured just 12
percent of the vote behind Yudhoyono and Megawati and some
voters are wary of its identification with Suharto's
Bakrie must also overcome the fallout from an environmental
accident in 2006 when a mud volcano erupted near a gas drilling
site in east Java, inundating several villages.
The cause of the eruption is disputed with the drilling
company, part-owned by the Bakrie Group, blaming an earthquake.
Many villagers, however, blame Bakrie. Mud spews to this day and
could taint Bakrie's prospects in a voter-rich region of the
Golkar however believes its time has come. It has in recent
months assiduously worked to delineate its policies from its
coalition partners, aided by a series of corruption scandals
within the Democrat Party that have hurt its standing with
"Golkar was born to be in power and to lead .... But it is
changing. From a kingmaker, Golkar now wants to be the king. We
tried this twice (in 2004 and 2009 elections) and we failed,"
said Yorrys Raweyai, a member of Golkar's central board.
"I am optimistic (that we can be more successful with Bakrie
as a candidate) but in a realistic kind of way," he said.
"BORN AT THE FINISH LINE"
Although it is trying to distance itself from Suharto's
shadow, Golkar remains staunchly nationalist.
Growing calls from some Golkar politicians for Indonesia to
secure more revenue from its abundant resources to sustain its
rapid growth and service its growing middle class have left some
foreign investors nervous.
Last month, Golkar politicians opposed a bid by Singapore's
DBS Group to take over local lender Bank Danamon
, and said they wanted to bar heavy foreign ownership
of local banks.
The party was also instrumental in scuppering a government
push to reduce subsidies on fuel prices - long called for by
economists and rating agencies - after widespread public
For Bakrie himself, there are other issues that could affect
a potential candidacy, beside the mud volcano.
The Bakrie Group, though no longer led by the politician,
could stand to gain from recent mining policy changes including
one under which foreign companies must divest 51 percent within
His business decisions have also been questioned. The group
has a history of running into debt crises and emerging from them
by selling off assets, as well as making acquisitions through
debt linked to shares in its firms.
Currently, the group is struggling with a covenant breach on
a $437 million loan for which the Bakries had pledged their 23.8
percent in Bumi Plc, one of the world's largest exporters of
thermal coal, as collateral.
But such issues seemed far away during Bakrie's tour of the
Jakarta suburbs of Depok and Tangerang as voters, many
struggling on low incomes, were preoccupied with what more the
state could do to help them.
"I told him to pay attention to the state of the trains in
Jakarta, how the trains often come late, there are lost signals,
how the fleet for passengers is too small, how there's not
enough maintainance," said Syaifudin, an online marketer who was
listening to one of his speeches.
For his part, Bakrie confined himself to remarks on
leadership and the work ethic, with few references either to the
coming political battle or the nation's policy challenges.
"Never give up and don't stand in the dark for too long
because if you do even your best friend will leave you," he said
in a speech to high school students. "Who is your best friend?
Your shadow. Find fresh ideas and get up to work," he said.
Senior party officials said his strategy during the
twice-monthly roadshows around the country is to broaden his
appeal as a national leader to voters such as students who can
vote in 2014.
They were also testing their own organizational skills: he
travelled in a motorcade that stopped traffic and was
accompanied by a squad of young workers, all dressed in T-shirts
bearing his initials, ARB, and armed with walkie-talkies.
Yet they said the prevailing view of him as a successful
member of the elite which gives him credibility as a candidate
could also be seen as a weakness.
"Ical was born on the finish line, he has nothing else to
fight for. He was rich when he was born," said Indra Jaya
Piliang, head of Golkar's policy review department, using
Bakrie's diminutive name.
"This (roadshow) campaign will make him say 'Hi' to the
people at the grassroots. In his office, who dares to debate
him?," he told Reuters.
Still, the approach has its limits. He travelled by train
the first day. The next day he arrived in Tangerang in a