Florence Chong's picture

THE intrigues of Presidential politics in Jakarta are in full swing as high-profile contenders compete for media and voter attention. Most intriguing of all is a suggestion that SBY’s wife could emerge from the shadows . . .


JAKARTA — The ancient Indonesian art of the shadow play - known as wanyang kulit – is alive and well in the prelude to next year’s general election.

No-one is quite sure who might step from the shadows to play lead act in this political puppet theatre.

The biggest surprise to emerge out of wanyang kulit may well be the role of the First Lady, Kristiani Herawati, also known as Ani Yudhoyono.

Sources say the First Lady harbours ambitions to succeed her husband, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The apparent incredulousness of this suggestion shows just how complex and unexpected the final outcome of the Presidential race is likely to be.

A long-time analyst of Indonesian politics, James van Zorge, says the President is steadfastly against the idea of his wife entering politics, and has repeatedly denied that she has such intentions.

But van Zorge, a Senior Fellow at AT Kearney, says the First Lady is quietly lobbying the Chairman of the Democratic Party, Nurhayati Ali Assegaf, for her support.

The President’s current first choice is his Trade Minister, Gita Wirawan. But he is leaving his final decision until after the US-style Democratic Party convention.

SBY’s Democratic Party has fallen out of favour, and is trailing a long way behind other more popular parties. Gita would bring a breath of fresh air.

Currently, the two hot favourites as Presidential runners are the Mayor of Jakarta, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo,  and Prabowo Subianto, former Commander of Indonesia’s Army Special Forces (Kopassus).

The latest poll by the respected Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) shows Jokowi, who describes himself as a cadre of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), ahead by a wide margin.

Jokowi is enjoying what CSIS analyst Philip Vermonte dubs "the Jokowi phenomenon". Voters and the media have fallen for his ‘boy-next-door’ charm and clean image. Jokowi is not part of the Jakarta elite.

In an earlier CSIS poll in January, Prabowo, former son-in-law of the late President Suharto, and Chairman of the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) Party, was clear favourite.

Although he is persona non-grata with Washington and human rights groups because of alleged human rights violations during the Suharto era, voters see Prabowo as a strong leader.

"He is frightfully persuasive, even when he is speaking in English. Can you imagine what he will be like when speaking to his own people in Indonesian?" observes an Australian lawyer in Jakarta.

Tellingly, one of  Prabowo’s current aides was arrested and jailed by Prabowo during a crackdown on student riots in Jakarta in the 1990s.

Controversial billionaire businessman and current Chairman of Golkar, Aburizal Bakrie, has the backing of his Party to run for the Presidency next year.

But public sentiment is against him. His personal polling is poor, while the Golkar Party itself is consistently polling second to PDI-P as the preferred party to win the election.

James van Zorge says Bakrie just wants to be on the winning ticket. He is prepared to accept the role of Vice President. Cynics say Bakrie needs to be in Government to protect his own business interests.

More names are likely to come to the fore in coming weeks and months. In recent days, new names cropping up include Suharto adjutant General (ret) Wiranto, the media magnate, Surya Paloh, and the current Co-ordinating Minister for the Economy, Hatta Rajasa, together with Irman Gusman, Regional Representatives Council Chairman, Marzuki Alle, speaker of the House, and recently-retired Army Chief Pramono Edhie, who is the younger brother of the First Lady.

However, none of these potential candidates has officially been endorsed by their Party.

No political party can name a Presidential candidate until it gains 20 per cent of the seats in the House of Representatives (DPR), or wins 25 per cent of votes in the Legislative election next April.

There is no certainty that PDI-P's Chairman, Megawati Sukarno, will select Jokowi to be her Presidential candidate. Some even suggest that she could well prefer her daughter, Puan Maharani, a Parliamentarian, to head the Party's ticket.

It is unlikely that Megawati, who has lost three elections, will herself want to contest again. Like Bakrie, she is seen as part of the Jakarta elite and the political has-beens.

Given the fractious nature of modern Indonesian politics, it is unlikely that a single party will clinch enough votes to be able to name its own Presidential candidate. There will be a Coalition formed, and perhaps changes in alliances to get the nomination, or to shore up support. Jokowi has already turned down overtures.

Hatta's National Mandate Party (PAN) has agreed to an alliance with the Gerindra Party, and Hatta himself has agreed to be Prabowo's running mate.

If he wins, Prabowo could well surprise as President – like BJ Habibi, a long-term Suharto Cabinet Minister whose legacy was political reform and bringing the Suharto clan to heel with corruption charges.