Tycoon poses as everyman to win election head start

Aburizal Bakrie, with one eye on the 2014 presidential vote, tours Jakarta in a battered car to convince voters he has a common touch

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 3:09am

Once Indonesia's richest man, Aburizal Bakrie is keen to show his common touch as he eyes presidential polls in 2014, but a row with the powerful Rothschild family could derail his bid.

On a recent tour of one Jakarta district, he arrived in a $220,000 (HK$1.7 million) Lexus but quickly swapped to a beaten-up hire car as he burnished his "man of the people" image.

"I started as a small businessman, selling what they sold, bags and T-shirts," he said, in a nod to the local artisans.

"Ever since I was the social welfare minister I was close to them. I was close to the people."

Dressed simply in a white linen shirt and trousers, the trim 65-year-old received a warm welcome on the visit as he was accompanied by his wife and bodyguard, who carried her Louis Vuitton handbag.

It was one of 40 such trips he has made across Indonesia's main island of Java in recent months as he seeks to get a head start in an election in which he is so far the only candidate.

His task, however, has been made more difficult by a row between his family and British financier Nathaniel Rothschild over coal venture Bumi.

Even though he gave up day-to-day control of the family business when he entered politics in 2004, analysts say the row could damage him - especially given previous controversies.

One notable scandal that still overshadows the family is the claim that one of its companies triggered a "mud volcano" in 2006 on Java that engulfed villages, even though the Supreme Court has cleared the firm of any wrongdoing. Observers say the feud over Bumi, which was founded by Rothschild and the Bakries but has been beset by boardroom squabbles, threatens not only his support base but also his campaign's finances.

Bakrie would not be drawn into talking about the row when asked about it during his Jakarta tour in late October, in keeping with his attempts to stay out of the family businesses.

The visit, part of an early vote-seeking drive, was generally greeted with enthusiasm.

And although he had a privileged upbringing and inherited a fortune from his father, Bakrie's attempt to portray himself as down-to-earth seemed to resonate with many in a country where almost half the population survives on under US$2 a day.

Neneng Sulastri, a 36-year-old hawker, chased Bakrie down the street and declared her intention to vote for him.

"A political leader has never visited us before and I got the impression he is a man of the people," she said, after he bought a pair of sandals from her for 100,000 rupiah (HK$80), four times the normal price.

Bakrie has previously served as chief economic minister and social welfare minister - he was appointed to both posts by the president - and is currently Golkar Party chairman.

Bumi Resources, Indonesia's largest coal miner, was founded by his family and is now part-owned by Bumi.

Simmering tensions escalated in September when the Bumi board ordered a probe into potential financial irregularities, backed by Rothschild, with a major part of the probe focusing on Bumi Resources.

The Bakries have now offered to give up their 23.8 per cent stake in Bumi, which was founded last year, and pay about US$1.2 billion for its mines, with the board due to decide on the offer in the coming weeks.

The deal would leave Bumi, which has seen its shares plunge more than 70 per cent since they listed, with cash but few assets and prompted Rothschild to quit the board last month.

Zainal Bintang, a senior Golkar Party official, conceded the situation could impact negatively on Bakrie's chances of persuading people to vote for him in 2014, however much he tries to polish his common man image.

"Bumi Resources is affecting Aburizal's financial situation. He is not as free as before to spend cash to boost his popularity."