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Major Indonesia Golkar party clings to unpopular presidential candidate

Indonesian billionaire businessman and chairman of Golkar Aburizal Bakrie (R) greets school students during a roadshow in Tangerang outskirt
Indonesian billionaire businessman and chairman of Golkar Aburizal Bakrie (R) greets school students during a roadshow in Tangerang outskirt

By Kanupriya Kapoor

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's second biggest political party has stood behind its candidate for next year's presidential election despite fears among some members that the controversial tycoon was far too unpopular among voters to stand any chance of winning.

Most opinion polls show that the chairman of the former ruling Golkar party, Aburizal Bakrie, would win less than 10 percent of the vote in July and party lawmakers acknowledge they have their work cut out to get the wealthy businessman into the presidential palace.

"His image of being a very successful business mogul doesn't go very far with regular voters," said Hermawan Sulistyo, political analyst at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences.

"He's a liability for Golkar, which otherwise would get pretty good support in legislative elections."

But legislators, speaking on Monday after the party's weekend gathering to confirm Bakrie as their candidate, said they expected their party to do well enough in April's parliamentary election to have a powerful voice in who will next lead the world's third largest democracy after India and the United States.

Presidential candidates must have the backing of a party, or parties, with at least 20 percent of the seats in parliament or 25 percent of the national vote for parliament. Golkar won 14.45 percent of the 2009 votes for parliament, and just over 19 percent of the seats.

"We are one of the biggest and oldest parties and we have strong grassroots support ... We're targeting 33 percent or 186 seats in parliament next year," said one senior Golkar MP, Tantowi Yahya.

Golkar became the parliamentary rubber stamp of the long authoritarian rule of former general Suharto, who rose to power in 1965 and ruled until he was forced to step down in 1998, dragging down with him the fortunes of the party he created.

But Golkar made use of its organizational reach across the archipelago to rebuild its standing even though many of its ageing leaders owe their political rise to Suharto.

"LONG WAY TO GO"

Suharto's rule became a byword for the graft that made Indonesia one of the world's most corrupt nations, a label it has had no success in shaking off after 15 years of democracy.

"We have a long way to go. We have to improve support from the regions and the regional leaders," another Golkar MP, Harry Azhar Aziz, said of efforts to improve Bakrie's electability.

Bakrie and his brothers head the Bakrie Group, one of whose main assets is Bumi Resources, Asia's biggest thermal coal exporter which was involved with the Rothschild banking dynasty in a tie-up which fell apart in a very public dispute. The deal is still being unwound.

His conglomerate has faced heavy criticism for its links to a huge mud flow in East Java that destroyed homes and swathes of farmland. Bakrie had a controlling share in the drilling company blamed for triggering the mudflow.

Recent polls have consistently shown Jakarta's charismatic governor, Joko Widodo, whose political roots have nothing to do with the Suharto era, is the man most Indonesians would like to be their next leader, after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's second and final five-year term ends.

Yudhoyono's own ruling party has sunk badly in popularity, damaged by graft scandals involving senior members, and what appears to be growing disillusion with the former general's leadership as economic growth starts to falter.

Widodo, popularly known as "Jokowi", however has not declared his candidacy, nor has the party he is affiliated with, the opposition PDI-P, said whether it will back him. That decision largely rests with former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the country's founding ruler and who dominates the party.

(Writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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