The government's chosen instrument for political action was Golangan Karya (Golkar), the ABRI-managed organization of "functional groups." Golkar had its roots late in Sukarno's Guided Democracy within the left-dominated National Front as an army-sponsored functional grouping of nearly 100 anticommunist organizations. These groups had a diverse membership, from trade unionists and civil servants to students and women. As a political force to balance the weight of the PKI and Sukarno's PNI, this Golkar prototype--the Joint Secretariat of Functional Groups--was ineffective, but it provided a framework for the military to mobilize civilian support. After 1966 it was reorganized by Suharto's supporters, under General Ali Murtopo, head of ABRI's Special Operations Service (Opsus), as an ostensibly nonpartisan civilian constituency for the New Order's authority. Golkar's mission was "to engage in politics to suppress politics." Its core membership was the Indonesian civil service and government officials at all levels of society, including the villages, and employees of state enterprises were expected to be loyal to Golkar. Behind the patronage and the semimonopoly on communications and funding that facilitated Golkar's electoral superiority, was the unspoken but occasionally overt power of ABRI.
Suharto was directly involved in Golkar's organization and policies from the beginning of the New Order. The organization's top advisory leadership was composed of senior ABRI officers, cabinet ministers, and leading technocrats. Day-to-day operations were under the direction of the chairman of the Central Executive Board. Under the chairmanship of Sudharmono from 1983 to 1988, Golkar increasingly became Suharto's personal constituency as opposed to an ABRI-New Order regime-oriented grouping. Sudharmono attempted to make Golkar a more effective political instrument by transforming it from a "functional group" basis to individual cadre membership. It was expected that the cadres, augmenting the official outreach, would help in the rice-roots mobilization of the "floating masses" at election times. As a mass-mobilizing, cadre party loyal to Suharto, there was some speculation that Golkar was emerging as an autonomous political force in society, no longer fully responsive to ABRI. Credence was given to this speculation by Suharto himself, when he admonished Golkar in 1989 to adopt a central position rather than "sit on the sidelines." Further evidence of the change in Golkar was seen in the emergence of a second-level younger civilian leadership as represented by its secretary general, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, brother of Minister of Foreign Affairs Mochtar Kusumaatmadja.
Concerns about Golkar's direction probably contributed to ABRI's initial dissatisfaction with Suharto's selection of Sudharmono to be vice president in 1988. The possibility that as vice president Sudharmono might seek concurrently to keep his Golkar position came to the fore at Golkar's October 1988 Fourth National Congress. At the congress, ABRI pushed countermeasures including installing military men in Golkar's regional leadership, and Suharto avoided confrontation by replacing Sudharmono with Wahono, the relatively obscure former governor of Jawa Timur Province. Wahono was a man personally loyal to Suharto and without succession aspirations. Nevertheless, Golkar's commanding position in the "open" political process left unanswered the question of its potential to become a rival to ABRI or an alternative political base for future aspirants to power.
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