From the 46th floor of his family’s jet black skyscraper in downtown Jakarta, Aburizal Bakrie, the tycoon-turned-politician, is quietly plotting his path to Indonesia’s presidency.
Mr Bakrie bears more than a passing resemblance to Silvio Berlusconi, minus the sex scandals and court cases. Short and thickset, the 66-year-old billionaire and his family own a property empire, coal mines, two TV stations and several football clubs. Like Mr Berlusconi, Italy’s former three-term prime minister, Mr Bakrie is adamant there is no inherent conflict of interest between his business and political careers.
“Is a businessman different from a military officer?” he tells the Financial Times. “If the president is a general, should his son not be a general? Is a businessman different from a professor? If the president is a professor, should his son not be a professor at the same university?”
The self-styled man of action cuts an assured figure in his cavernous office, which features orange and yellow sofas, garish contemporary art works and several giant flatscreen TVs showing one of his own channels. Opera and pop music echo in the background, while a gaggle of senior officials from his Golkar party wait outside in a café-like area, sipping coffee and tea.
The aspiring leader, who rarely gives interviews to foreign media, makes the case that he is the right man to propel Indonesia’s thriving economy to the next level – and tackle the country’s endemic poverty, ramshackle infrastructure and the rising religious intolerance among its 240m people.
“We can reach 8 per cent growth if we are not conservative in our financial management,” says Mr Bakrie, referring to the statutory budget deficit limit, which is set at 3 per cent of gross domestic product. This would mark a departure from the strict fiscal discipline pursued in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, which toppled the authoritarian Suharto regime.
That approach guaranteed an extended period of macroeconomic stability, setting the stage for a relatively smooth democratic transition and transforming Indonesia from a basket case into one of the world's hottest emerging markets.
Mr Bakrie is one of several declared and undeclared candidates to succeed President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (universally known as SBY), who is stepping down next year after reaching the constitutional, two-term limit. The elections are widely seen as a crucial test of Indonesia’s ability to consolidate its status as a young, vibrant democracy and continue its impressive economic performance.
Mr Yudhoyono’s administration has ducked tough decisions, according to Mr Bakrie, particularly on cutting the $20bn fuel subsidy.
He would divert most of the funds into the provision of free public education and much-needed health programmes. He also pledges to be “much firmer” in defending religious diversity among the predominantly Islamic population in the face of violent extremists.
“The police have to be able to do their job and you have to give them the political umbrella,” he says, decrying the government’s failure to ensure that law enforcement agencies protect Shia Muslim, Christian and other minority religious groups.
While he is forthright on matters of national interest, Mr Bakrie becomes more apprehensive when the conversation turns to his family’s business interests and the disastrous mining deal struck in 2010 with Nat Rothschild, scion of the celebrated banking dynasty.
He denies ever using his power as a former cabinet minister and chairman of Indonesia’s second biggest political party to promote the family business. But he concedes that his younger brother, Nirwan, who took control of the Bakries’ business group when Aburizal joined the government in 2004, consults with him on “strategic decisions”.
One such decision was the Bumi Plc deal, which saw the Bakries reverse their Kalimantan coal mining assets into Mr Rothschild’s London-listed cash shell, only to see the share price collapse amid allegations of financial improprieties and a bitter boardroom split.
“Do you know what I told him?” says Mr Bakrie. “I doubt it will be a good one. A business [deal] that is done in one month, before knowing each other, worth $3bn, is too good to be true.”
The Bakrie family now want to buy back some of the Bumi coal mining assets, but they are short of cash – not for the first time in what Mr Bakrie himself admits has been a see-saw company history. The financial pressures are so extreme that some analysts believe they may have to sell off their TV stations and leading news website, which would be a setback for his presidential campaign.
“Everything is for sale at the right price,” says Mr Bakrie, beaming a Beverly Hills smile through brilliantly polished white teeth. “You should not fall in love with a company. You should only fall in love with your wife.”
The family patriarch says he also needs money to pay off the last tranche of financial aid to the victims of a gigantic mudflow in Sidoarjo, East Java, which happened in 2006 after oil drilling by an associate Bakrie company.
The incident continues to cast a long shadow over Mr Bakrie’s ambitions to attain the top office because many blame the company for negligence towards safety and the 40,000 people who had to abandon their homes.
Mr Bakrie is unabashed. He says a court has cleared the Bakries of wrongdoing and there is no obligation to pay compensation.
“People in the mudflow – 99 per cent of them – are thankful to me and thankful to the family . . . because they got more than they had before,” he says.
If the Sidoarjo disaster is not his biggest weakness, as many political analysts argue, then what is?
A man known for his ruthlessness in business, Mr Bakrie offers an unexpected reply. “I am too kind-hearted. I’m too generous toward people who fail, too generous toward people who betray us, too generous toward our enemies.”
With the election more than a year away, there are many hurdles for Mr Bakrie to overcome if he is to clinch the presidency.
But the combination of his political muscle and the family’s business interests will ensure that he remains a kingmaker if not the king.
As one international banker, who refuses to lend to the heavily indebted family, says: “Mr Bakrie has nine lives – and he’s only used six to date.”
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