BLITAR, Indonesia — As Indonesia gears up for twin elections this year, the pivotal figure is a woman in her late sixties who has been trounced all three times that she has contested for president.
Megawati Sukarnoputri dominates the opposition party that opinion polls show is likely to top the April 9 parliamentary election. She also has, if she chooses, the candidate whom polls show would sweep aside all other contenders in the presidential election three months later.
But the 67-year-old daughter of the country’s founding president is said to want the top job herself, although the chances of her winning it are slim.
It’s a dilemma that has brought uncertainty over who will lead Southeast Asia’s largest economy and the nation with the world’s biggest Muslim population when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono retires in October.
Senior officials in Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) insisted they did not know what her final decision would be.
“It ultimately comes down to her, no matter what anybody feels within the party,” said one insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Whatever Ibu Mega decides, so goes the party,” the source said, using her popular name.
Megawati is famously enigmatic. When she filled in as the country’s first woman president from 2001-2004, her term was criticized for indecisiveness.
A decision on the PDI-P’s presidential candidate is likely to be only after April’s legislative election and could be taken as late as mid-May.
Indonesia follows a presidential form of government, although power is shared with parliament. Only parties that win 25 percent of the vote or 20 percent of the 560 seats in the parliamentary poll will be permitted to name candidates for the July presidential election. PDI-P and perhaps just one or two other parties are likely to qualify.
If the public had a say in the nomination, it would be for Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, a member of PDI-P who is currently the popular governor of the capital Jakarta.
The frontrunner in opinion polls by a wide margin, he is widely seen as representing change in the world’s third-largest democracy: a young, clean and competent operator in a system dominated by an ageing, often corrupt elite.
But first, he will have to win the endorsement of his party chief.
As the scion of Indonesia’s charismatic founding father Sukarno, Megawati has headed a loyal and growing base of supporters through a decade in opposition.
She has never actually won a presidential election. But she was vice president in 2001 when parliament ousted Abdurrahman Wahid, the man elected president by the legislature in 1999, and installed her in his place. She remained in office for three years.
She then lost Indonesia’s first direct presidential election to Yudhoyono in 2004, and again to him in 2009.
Megawati grew up in the Istana Merdeka presidential palace in Jakarta during her father’s long rule and dropped out of university to be with him after his fall from grace in 1965.
As strongman Suharto took power, the Sukarno family was pushed to the margins of political and social life. Sukarno died in 1970.
Megawati became a symbol of opposition in the over three decades Suharto was in power and went on to win a following in Indonesia’s political turbulence of the late 1990s. She formed the current PDI-P soon after Suharto was forced to step down in 1998.
But she was never able to reproduce her father’s popularity, and analysts say that if she does still dream of winning the presidency and creating an enduring Sukarno family legacy, this will be her last chance.
“She has a legacy to live up to and there’s a part of her that thinks she belongs back in that presidential palace,” said Douglas Ramage, political analyst at Bower Group Asia consultancy.
However, opinion polls suggest she would struggle to beat off likely challengers from other parties: tycoon Aburizal Bakrie and Prabowo Subianto, an ex-general with a dark human rights record.
At the rank and file level of the party, however, Megawati enjoys the support of thousands of self-proclaimed loyalists who believe that the ability to lead the country runs in her blood.
“As a Javanese I believe in natural and mystical forces and so I believe the spirit of Bung Karno still protects our nation,” said 40-year-old Dewi Kriswindari, using Sukarno’s nickname amidst a murmur of prayer by his grave in Blitar in East Java province, one of the party’s traditional strongholds.
“I’m not very political, but Megawati is his daughter and I believe she can guide Indonesia as a leader.”
Party insiders say Megawati and the party’s ageing senior leadership take this legacy very seriously—not least because they could lose influence if she goes.
The death last year of Megawati’s husband Taufik Kiemas, whom she recently called her “sparring partner,” meant perhaps the only other prominent and counterbalancing voice in the party is gone, giving her supporters ample room to urge Megawati to run for president again.
Nevertheless, a growing chorus of voices within the party has called on her to instead take on the role of “Mother of the Nation” to echo her father’s legacy and, considering her consistently low popularity ratings, let Jokowi run for the presidency.
“The people want a new figure, and that’s Jokowi,” said Ali Husein, a PDI-P legislative candidate from Bangka Belitung province who co-chairs a group promoting the Jakarta governor’s candidacy.
“I don’t think the PDI-P would be stupid enough for Mega to be the candidate.”
In a recent live television interview, she walked out on stage to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and sat silently or gave typically vague answers as Jokowi watched from the audience.
When asked the inevitable question about the candidacy, Megawati’s answer was ambivalent.
“Leaders of the party don’t have to be directly related to Sukarno,” she said, “But I tell them to remember that there are still many loyal followers of Bung Karno.”
Additional reporting by Jakarta bureau.