"There are many variables and many caveats but it still applies that no presidential candidate can survive without Golkar's endorsement," says Landry Subianto, a political analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta.

"It doesn't matter how many problems Golkar has behind the scenes, to lead this country without their support would be very, very difficult."

With more than 80% of the ballots counted from the first round of the presidential election, a run-off election in September pitting incumbent president Megawati Sukarnoputri against her former security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is virtually assured.

"It doesn't matter
how many problems Golkar has behind the scenes, to lead this country without their support would be very, very difficult"

Landry Subianto,
political analyst,
The Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta

Golkar's own candidate, retired general Wiranto, is running in third place and expected to concede defeat in the next few days.

Neither contender is waiting until results are finalised next Monday to begin building the coalitions they need to win the second round ballot. Their advisers are lining up to woo the Golkar party executives with offers of plum cabinet positions that might ultimately return recycled Suharto loyalists back to positions of power.

"Golkar is again the largest party in Indonesia and it is going to want to play an important role in the next government: they'll want a share of the cabinet positions," says political analyst Andi Malarangeng.

"I would think that most ministerial positions would be on the table except for things like finance and maybe home affairs."

Political infancy

Golkar was formed by the powerful Indonesian military in the early 1960s as a means to control the spread of communism in the 5000km-long archipelago nation.

For more than three decades, Indonesia's original establishment party provided Suharto's iron-fisted rule a thin veneer of democratic respectability.

Its spread reflected the army's view of its own role as both a military and political entity, with strong links to business. Golkar cadres formed tight social and business circles and its influential local offices controlled the election and appointment of leaders down to the village level.

Suharto was forced to resign in 1998 in the face of mass street demonstrations against rampant corruption and a devalued currency. The conditions were brought on by the Asian economic collapse and the bankruptcy of dozens of lending institutions, many of which were owned by Suharto cronies.

Oddities

In national elections one year later, Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) rode a wave of reformist sentiment to secure the largest number of votes and the biggest block of seats in the national assembly. Despite its links to the old regime, the Golkar party apparatus still managed to deliver enough votes to finish second.

Sukarnoputri is the daughter of
Indonesia's founding father

It is one of the peculiarities of the Indonesian political landscape that the head of the most popular party does not necessarily lead the country.

In a move that foreshadowed her imperious style of governance, Ms Sukarnoputri, 57, refused to get her hands dirty consolidating political support in the national assembly, the body that until this year elected the president.

Instead, a cabal of politicised Muslim clerics overcame their own differences, issued statements criticising the possible appointment of a female president in predominantly Muslim Indonesia, and installed the erratic preacher Abdurrahman Wahid as president.

He named Megawati vice-president several days later after boisterous demonstrations by her supporters on the resort island of Bali who were furious the daughter of Indonesia's founding president had been "robbed" of the presidency.

Corruption

Almost two years later, she teamed up with Golkar's wily party chairman Akbar Tanjung to impeach the unpredictable populist Wahid on bribery charges.

Vice-President Hamzah Haz (L) is
a religious conservative

In a move that suggested a degree of hitherto unseen political savvy, Megawati selected as her vice-president Hamzah Haz, a religious conservative who had spearheaded opposition to her presidential aspirations two years earlier.

Hamzah last week urged his supporters to support Megawati in the second round after receiving just three per cent support for his own presidential candidacy.

Through this stormy period, the Golkar leadership quietly consolidated power behind Tanjung. The house speaker's presidential dream vanished when he was convicted last year of embezzling millions of dollars from a state agency that delivered food aid to the nation's poor.

He beat the conviction on appeal just weeks before the 5 April elections that saw Golkar poll 20% of the popular vote, the single largest block.

Artful manoeuvres

But Tanjung had become unelectable at the national level and party cadres selected the indicted war criminal Wiranto in a divisive three-day-long leadership conference later that month.

Wiranto, the Golkar party man,
is likely to step out of the race

Though publicly gracious, many analysts believe Tanjung has been quietly working to undermine support for Wiranto's candidacy ever since.

"It has never been in his [Tanjung's] interest to see Wiranto become president because he would then take over the chairmanship of Golkar," says Malarangeng.

"Akbar still wants to be chairman. He knows that he has a big role to play in the next government so he'll be looking for the candidate that offers him the best strategic advantage."

As though to underscore the fact that he, not Wiranto, is guiding Golkar's destiny, Tanjung on Sunday mused that his party is "closer to PDI-P" than it is to Yudhoyono's Democratic Party.

While definitely a boost to Megawati's dreams of re-election, the task of coalition building is complicated by both the internal divisions within Golkar and the increasing sophistication of the Indonesian voter.

To illustrate the former, one only need examine the make-up of the party executive.

The deputy secretary-general of the party's central executive board, Boomer Pasaribu, believes PDI-P is the best fit while the board chairman Fahmi Idris wants to partner with Mr Yudhoyono.

The 2004 election season has also revealed the average voter to be less likely to blindly follow the lead of party executives, says Alan Wall, of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

"We've seen in many instances party members being told to vote one way but come election day, they turn around and head in the opposite direction. It has added a real element of unpredictability to the elections," Wall says.