The serious illness of former first lady Kristiani Herrawati has cast a pall over the election campaign of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s Democrat Party and raised new questions over the future presidential ambitions of the couple’s eldest son, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono.
Polling at 5.5% in the latest Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) survey, the once ruling Democrats are one of six parties that are safely above the 4% vote threshold required to be represented in the 575-seat House of Representatives.
That’s down from 9% in 2014 at the end of the Yudhoyono presidency and a poll-topping 20.8% at the start of his second term in 2009, when the incumbency and his all-round popularity gave him a landslide victory over his embittered predecessor, Megawati Sukarnoputri.
The former president dropped out of the legislative election campaign in February, the moment his 66-year-old wife was diagnosed with acute leukemia. But the Yudhoyono brand still sells, particularly in his native East Java, where the Democrats hold 11 of their current 61 seats.
“There are positives and negatives,” says one source close to the family. “SBY (Yudhoyono) might not be able to campaign, but sympathy for Ani has been overwhelming, in the media and the social media. That will help the party.”
Ever the politician, Yudhoyono, 69, took care to draft the speech the 40-year-old Harimurti gave at Sentul, on the southern outskirts on Jakarta, when he announced he was taking over the election campaign from his father, who stays as the party chairman.
He also appointed two trusted colleagues, military academy classmate Major General Nachrowi Ramli, 67, and recently retired East Java provincial governor Soekarwo, 68, to assist Harimurti on a team that consists mainly of younger party cadre.
Harimurti’s younger brother, Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono, 38, the Democrat parliamentary leader and once considered the political heir apparent, is running for re-election in the East Java electorate covering Pacitan, the fishing port where the former president grew up.
With Edhie failing to make the grade, Yudhoyono plucked his elder son from a promising military career to run in the 2016-2017 Jakarta gubernatorial campaign, as a possible first step towards securing a nomination for the next generation-changing presidential election in 2024.
But he was beaten out by former education minister Anies Baswedan in an election which saw the downfall of incumbent ethnic-Chinese Christian governor Basuki Purnama for making a careless reference to the Koran in a campaign speech.
In the months that followed, the elder Yudhoyono sought to secure the vice presidential candidacy for his son, first with Widodo and then with Prabowo, apparently as the price for his party’s substantial political and financial support.
Neither thought Harimurti was ready for the big time after less than a year’s political experience. Now he faces a tough path ahead with only a minority party behind him and in danger of being overshadowed by Sandiaga Uno, 44, Prabowo’s popular businessman running mate.
Much of his hopes rest on the Democrats gaining more than 10% of the vote as a bigger player in the party equation; rumors of a deal being struck between Widodo and Yudhoyono during their recent one-on-one hospital meeting in Singapore have also raised speculation of a post-election accommodation.
Although the centrist Democrats are nominally aligned with the opposition camp, there is no love lost between Prabowo and Yudhoyono. Even before his wife’s illness the ex-president did virtually nothing to help the Prabowo campaign.
Only this week, Prabowo’s brother, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, left the Democrats off the list of Cabinet posts promised to its two other opposition partners, Justice and Prosperity (PKS) and National Mandate (PAN), if Prabowo wins the April 17 election, as unlikely as that now appears.
Once a flamboyant playboy who has since had to burnish his Muslim credentials to meet the current trend towards Islamic identity politics, Uno rose to prominence as Baswedan’s running mate while avoiding much of the vitriolic anti-Purnama rhetoric.
Despite being Prabowo’s fifth running mate choice, Uno has been capitalizing on his new-found national visibility by making more than 1,000 stops on the campaign trail so far. In fact, at times, it has seemed the financier-turned- politician is the only one doing electoral spadework.
With Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) Party poised to climb into second place behind Widodo’s ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), Uno is now ideally placed for 2024 ahead of Harimurti and three or four other presidential hopefuls.
Meanwhile, the elder Yudhoyono spends his waking hours in a specially prepared fifth floor hospital room receiving an endless stream of visitors, among them Widodo, Prabowo, and even Xanana Gusmao, the former president of Timor-Leste.
“It has been very difficult for him,” says the family friend, referring to Yudhoyono’s wife’s illness. “For the 10 years he was president, Ani went with him everywhere, both inside and outside the country. She has remained a constant companion since then. All this just came out of the blue.”
Next month, she is expected to undergo what is hoped will be a life-saving bone marrow transplant from her brother, ex-army chief of staff and special forces commander General Pramono Edhie Wibowo, 63, who is the closest family match.
Kristiana and Wibowo are two of the seven children of the late special forces Lieutenant Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, who led the bloody 1965-66 purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) that ended with the fall of national founding president Sukarno, Megawati’s father.
Kristiani and Yudhoyono, then a shy but high-flying class of 1973 recruit from a lower middle class family, met and married at the Indonesian Military Academy in Central Java, where her father was the then superintendent.
Some commentators believe that while marrying into a wealthy blue blood family helped Yudhoyono’s career, as promising as it was even then, it also fed some of his insecurities that became increasingly obvious in the second of his two presidential terms.
Although she never intervened in meetings, the strong-willed Kristiani has been his closest confidante and fiercest protector — much like her mother, Sunarti Sri Hadiyah, 88, who still lives in the house she and Sarwo Edhie shared next to the special forces’ South Jakarta headquarters.
When Yudhoyono typically dithered over whether to resign from Megawati’s Cabinet and run for the presidency in 2004, an act the then president took as a betrayal, it was the matriarch who confronted him at a weekend family gathering and told him to stop ducking and start punching. He did, three days later.