Jakarta. Golkar top executives were all smiles as the party kicked off its national congress on Tuesday night, with the bitter rivalry between chairman Airlangga Hartarto and People’s Consultative Assembly Speaker Bambang Soesatyo seemingly having vanished into thin air.
Hours before the opening ceremony, Bambang unexpectedly announced his withdrawal from the chairmanship contest, saying party unity towered above his personal agenda and paving the way for Airlangga's reelection.
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo could sense the giddy atmosphere as he delivered the opening speech of the congress at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in South Jakarta and proceeded to cheer up the audience even more by mostly ignoring his prepared speech and spicing it up with several well-targeted jokes.
"When I walked into this room, I could just feel the cool atmosphere. Even if we turn off the air conditioning, I'm quite sure the room would stay cool," Jokowi said to enthusiastic laughter from members of the country's second-biggest party in the national legislature.
The president insisted he had never intervened in Golkar's internal affairs – apparently a reference to his alleged preference for Airlangga to continue his leadership of the party.
The current coordinating minister for the economy is known as one of Jokowi's most trusted aides.
Jokowi mentioned rumors that State Secretary Pratikno had arranged a meeting of leaders from Golkar's regional chapters across the country to influence the chairmanship election.
"If any of the regional chapter leaders here got an invitation from the state secretary, please come to the stage and I will give him a bicycle as a prize," the president joked.
Jokowi is known for quizzing the audience in his public meetings and then giving them bicycles as a prize.
Jokowi said he had asked Pratikno in person if the meeting had indeed happened and the answer, the president claimed, was a straight no.
"But if a minister had done it, he must've been a Golkar man himself. That could be Mr. Agus [Gumiwang], Mr. Zainudin Amali or Mr. Luhut [Pandjaitan]," Jokowi said, referring to Golkar executives in his cabinet.
Luhut, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment, was the one to arrange the crucial meeting between Airlangga and Bambang at his office on Tuesday afternoon, which ended with the latter's announcement to drop his bid for the Golkar chairmanship.
"Give your applause to Mr. Bambang Soesatyo," Jokowi told the audience at the Golkar congress, encouraging them to honor Bambang’s decision.
But Jokowi refused calls from the audience to award Bambang with a bicycle, saying: "He's the first person in Indonesia to own a Tesla car. Why should I give him a bicycle?"
The president said a united Golkar is very important to keep national stability, considering the party's enormous size and its extensive network.
"If there's tension within Golkar, the national politics will be full of tension, too," he said.
"Yes, a little political heat in a democracy is fine, but if we can settle things through brotherhood and unity, why not?" the president said.
Tribute to Bambang
In his speech, delivered before Jokowi's, Airlangga spent a brief moment honoring his former rival.
"No matter what happens, Golkar must never plunge into division anymore. I want this national congress to create a momentum to reunite and expand the party, not divide it," Airlangga said.
"I would like to extend my sincerest appreciation to the People's Consultative Assembly speaker and one of Golkar's best members, Mr. Bambang Soesatyo," he said.
"We had met this afternoon and he decided to withdraw from the chairman election," Airlangga said.
Airlangga then asked Bambang to rise from his chair and let the audience cheer him on.
"Mr. Bambang has promised to stay loyal to the party's commitment and put unity and the national interest above anything else. He's a true example of a mature Golkar politician," Airlangga said.
Airlangga inherited the chairmanship of Golkar, a party marred by years of internal rifts, in December 2017.
At its zenith, the division saw the former ruling party languishing for almost two years under the dual leadership of tycoon Aburizal Bakrie and rival Agung Laksono after the former was re-elected as chairman in 2014.
An extraordinary congress was held in May 2016 to end the conflict and Setya Novanto was elected new chairman. But he had to leave his post prematurely after being convicted of corruption and a subsequent congress replaced him with Airlangga.
The party was again on the brink of a major division after Bambang challenged Airlangga's chairmanship on accusations of misconduct and undemocratic leadership.