SBY's Wife for Indonesia's President?

It may seem a bit early given that elections are three years away, but Jakarta's political circles are beginning to buzz with reports that Kristiani Herawati, the wife of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, plans to run for president when his second term expires in 2014. The whole thing, pundits and insiders say, is about building a Yudhoyono dynasty.

Mrs Yudhoyono, known universally as Ibu Ani, is the daughter and eldest child of the late Gen. Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, who played a key role in the events of 1965 in which the late strongman Suharto took advantage of a failed coup to elevate himself into power over founding president Sukarno. Initially a close ally of Suharto who also played a role in the bloody purge of Indonesian communists in 1965-66, Sarwo Edhie was said to have been pushed aside in 1970 after he reportedly complained about government corruption.

From that point on, he was given positions that largely kept him outside the political sphere of the central government. He was appointed Indonesian Ambassador to South Korea and Inspector General of the Department of Foreign Affairs from 1978 to 1983.

While it is difficult to pin down her motivations with any certainty, Ibu Ani is said by palace observers and others to believe it is her family's turn to rule Indonesia after the derailing of her father by Suharto.

According to this line of thinking, Ibu Ani would fill the chair until one of the couple's two sons, currently too young to go for the top job, are sufficiently mature to run. That would be in 2019 at the earliest, when the family's eldest son, Agus, a military officer, would be 40. The couple's younger son, Edhie, was elected a member of the Democratic Party's House of Representatives contingent. Both sons reportedly have political ambitions.

The presidential palace in Jakarta Tuesday denied suggesting that the first lady is a likely presidential candidate. The president's spokesman, Julian Pasha, told reporters that any talk that she would succeed her husband was simply "a discourse, aspiration or opinion that was privately conveyed."

Nonetheless, a senior official of the powerful Golkar Party, which is nominally allied with Yudhoyono currently, said recently, "Ibu Ani is the choice. She is likely to lead the ticket in 2014." The man said the president's party simply had no other recognizable leader that could move into the job. "There is no one else," he said.

A spokesman for the Democratic Party, which Yudhoyono founded, hinted Monday that Aburizal Bakrie, the head of Golkar, the scandal-plagued party set up by Suharto, could be Mrs Yudhoyono's running mate. The idea is that a vice presidential candidate should be drawn from one of the two or three biggest political parties to solidify grass roots support. Along with the Democrats and Golkar, the third is the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P as it is known by its Indonesian language initials. The party's leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is regarded largely as a spent force in Indonesian politics and her husband is said to be eyeing a partnership with the Democrats as a way into power.

Mrs Yudhoyono would face some stiff competition, although none of it is arising from the Democratic Party. The party's chairman, Anas Urbaningrum, is considered too young at age 41, and has little grassroots support. Dino Patti Djalal, the president's former spokesman, could be considered a long shot but he too is considered to be young at 45 and is in Washington, DC as ambassador to the US.

Another candidate is Hatta Rajasa, the head of the National Mandate Party and coordinating Minister for the Economy in Yudhoyono's cabinet. But Hatta was pushed aside from being selected as Yudhoyono's vice presidential candidate in the 2009 national presidential election in favor of Boediono, a respected banker and technocrat who is not a politician.

Any suggestion that Bakrie might be a running mate to Ibu Ani seems equally far fetched. He covets the presidency himself and is now a front runner of sorts despite the fact that he consistently polls no more than 3 or 4 opercent in opinion surveys given his reputation as bare-fisted backroom businessman. But while he holds no official role in the cabinet, in May Bakrie was appointed "managing chairman" of a new government joint political secretariat — a position he got the day after his allies in the House succeeded in driving Sri Mulyani Indrawati, the widely respected former finance minister, out of town.

Persistent reports, however, have Sri Mulyani plotting a return to Indonesia to run for President in 2014 as a reform candidate. One suggestion making the rounds is that Sri Mulyani, who was hounded from office in a nasty political fight over a bank bailout and is currently a managing director of the World Bank, would even lead the Democrats. It is tantalizing to consider but unlikely, given her lack of a popular base beyond academics, intellectuals and journalists.

Despite Yudhoyono's reputation as a reformer, Sri Mulyani herself has compared the current situation in Jakarta to Suharto's crony dictatorship, telling business leaders last May that "We have learned from the 30-year regime of President Suharto, where relationships between personal and public interests were so mixed up. We all knew what occurred during the New Order era was like a disease. But at that time it was done behind closed doors. Now it's more sophisticated and the skills of power enable the decision-making process to be co-opted."

Certainly, despite 12 years of undeniable economic, social and political strides since Suharto lost power in 1998, the country remains mired in pervasive corruption, with its political institutions largely undeveloped and its law enforcement and judicial systems shot through with questionable practices.

But with today's admirably free press, at least the coffee shop mutterings and speculation surface for all to hear. Unlike the days when Gen. Sarwo Edhie and his erstwhile pal Suharto maneuvered themselves into power through stealth and a bloody purge, Indonesia's future is discussed and pondered openly, just like in what the country has become, a democracy.