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Lion Air chief joins conservative party in surprise move

Publication Date : 14-01-2014


Six months ago, the chief of Lion Air, Indonesia's largest private airline, turned down an offer from the right-wing Democratic Party to join its presidential convention.

But in a surprise move, Rusdi Kirana on Sunday joined the moderately conservative Islam-based National Awakening Party (PKB) of former president Abdurrahman Wahid and was parachuted in to be a deputy chairman.

Rusdi, who is ethnic Chinese and started his working life selling typewriters, said he was indebted to Gus Dur, as Wahid is known, for making those of Chinese descent like him respected by and equal to other Indonesians.

"The PKB has special meaning for me personally, and for this nation," he said.

The PKB has traditionally been an open party aligned with the moderate Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama. Rusdi's entry could help boost its coffers and image in the April elections for Parliament at a time when support for Muslim parties is declining.

Rusdi and his brother Kusnan founded Lion Air in 2000 with just one plane, and built the company into the country's biggest budget carrier with 100 aircraft to date. The duo had a net worth of some US$1 billion last year, making them the 29th richest Indonesians, according to Forbes Indonesia.

He is the latest of several prominent entrepreneurs to openly declare their political affiliation ahead of what many expect to be fiercely contested polls.

Last February, media mogul Hary Tanoesoedibjo switched from the National Democrat (Nasdem) Party to the People's Conscience (Hanura) Party of former armed forces chief Wiranto.

Rusdi said: "Businessmen must also step up to take the nation forward, and one way of doing that is through politics."

The move drew critics online, who said they smelled a political deal and observed that being part of one party means prominent businessmen are spared the pressure of contributing to several parties at once.

Political scientist Fachry Ali told The Straits Times: "By joining (up), PKB and Rusdi mutually reap benefits."

The party gains funds, and the businessman enjoys leverage, he said.

The PKB, set up in 1998 during the dying days of President Suharto's regime, won 12.6 per cent of the popular vote in the 1999 elections, and its leader, Gus Dur, became president. It has always been part of a governing coalition, but saw its vote share slide to 5 per cent in the 2009 elections.

Analysts expect its performance to improve this time, going by opinion polls and the fact that parties like the Democrats and the main Islamic party, PKS, are battered by corruption scandals.


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