Indonesia’s Sri Mulyani Cool on Presidential Run?

Former finance minister is noncommittal

Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Indonesia’s former finance minister, returned to Jakarta last week from her job as a managing director for the World Bank and appeared to throw cold water on calls for her to run as a reform candidate in 2014 Presidential elections.

Her remarks, at a dinner given in honor of her 49th birthday, don’t constitute an absolute refusal to head a ticket for the newly created Independent People’s Union, conveniently known by its Indonesian-language initials SRI.

However, during the Sept. 2 dinner, the 49-year-old Sri Mulyani repeatedly deflected calls for her to run. “You are being shallow,” she told the crowd after speaker after speaker implored her to pick up the mantle being offered by the new SRI political party. “Now let’s enjoy the party.”

It was the first time she has spoken publicly about the effort to get her to run in 2014. She explained to the crowd of friends and believers in her reform credentials, in good humor, that World Bank rules preclude senior bank officials from being involved in political activity. She added that the SRI party had raised eyebrows at the bank and that she had explained to her colleagues in Washington that she had nothing to do with the party.

“Of course this doesn’t mean it’s over,” said a source who attended and who is also a prominent political figure. “But I think she doesn’t want to be hijacked by this party.”

Although rumors have circulated in Jakarta for months that Sri Mulyani would like to return to run as a reform candidate, her candidacy would be a long shot at best. The small group behind the party, which includes the journalist and author Goenawan Mohamad, prominent priest and government critic Romo Benny Susetyo, pundit Wimar Witoelar, oilman Arifin Panigoro and lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis, would have an extremely difficult time putting together the machinery to run an effective political campaign in a sprawling country that covers 13,500 islands comprising 33 provinces.

Under Indonesia’s election rules, a party must secure at least 25 percent of the votes in a general election to quality to nominate a presidential candidate. Although the SRI says it has established a presence in all 33 of Indonesia’s provinces, putting together that kind of a campaign would be extremely difficult.

Two entrenched parties – Golkar, the party created by former strongman Suharto, and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, headed by former President Megawati Sukarnoputri – control much of the political landscape. PRI would in particular be up against Golkar, now run by Aburizal Bakrie, one of the country’s richest tycoons, who is expected to seek the presidency and who is Sri Mulyani’s mortal enemy.

The latest round of US diplomatic cables released by the Wikileaks blog repeats rumors that Bakrie had poured Rp200 billion (US$20 million at then-prevailing exchange rates) into President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s 2004 election campaign and contains the parenthetical comment: “We believe the 200 billion figure is credible.”

The Democratic Party headed by the President in the meantime has fallen on hard times. Although it is currently the biggest party in the country, it is enmeshed in an enormous scandal over bribes paid in the construction of an athletes’ village for the upcoming Asian Games. Some observers believe the party could implode. Several top Democratic Party officials have been accused of graft. That has affected Yudhoyono’s own standing. An opinion poll in June by the Indonesia Survey Circle showed the president’s approval rating, reported as high as 90 percent when he was reelected, had fallen from 56.7 percent at the end of 2010 and further to 47.2 percent in June.

Although her departure from the SBY government in 2010 came during allegations that she and Boediono, then the central bank governor and later SBY’s vice president, had violated the law in their attempts to save the scandal-ridden Bank Century, she was given credit for playing a major role in reforming the government. The allegations of corruption were considered to be trumped up in an effort to drive her from office.

She left after an epic series of confrontations in which she refused to bail out Bakrie’s coal interests with government funds after the Indonesian stock market collapsed at the onset of the global financial crisis. She also insisted on investigating Bakrie’s interests on tax fraud charges involving as much as US$1 billion. After her departure for the World Bank, where she was named as one of three governors, all of the cases against Bakrie were shelved. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she blamed the tycoon for her departure.

There also remain the allegations over the Bank Century bailout. Despite her reputation for competence and incorruptibility, which played a major role in winning her the World Bank position, she would continue to face continuing allegations over the bailout. Golkar in particular has continued to push for a probe into the affair.

(With reporting from Jakarta Globe)

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