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A Suharto daughter joins a Muslim supremo to play the Islam card

Asiaweek - April 13, 1997

Susan Berfield and Keith Loveard, Jakarta – Siti Hardyanti Rukmana is a woman of considerable means. She is Indonesia's foremost businesswoman – her diversified conglomerate PT Citra Lamtoro Gung Persada is worth an estimated $1 billion. She is a top official in the ruling party Golkar and, of course, the eldest of President Suharto's six children. She is a daughter of privilege and, like her brothers and sisters, is often criticized for trading on her name. Yet she has earned a reputation for diligence and deference. Tutut, as she is more commonly called, is willing to talk with just about any Indonesian. She is the most politically astute of the Suharto clan, and perhaps the most careful about her image. The 48-year-old mother of three heads the Indone-sian Red Crescent, and the national volleyball association. She is often shown on television doing good deeds – always smiling (like her father), always wearing a Muslim head scarf.

Tutut hardly needs any more exposure in Indonesia. If anything, her clout with her father seems to have increased since her mother's death a year ago. Her political standing, though, has not changed. Until now. This election season (go to the REAL rules of Indonesia's electoral system) heralds Tutut's coming out. She is contesting a seat in the legislature, the House of Representatives, once again. But that is not what the buzz is about. Since late last month she has been on center stage at massive rallies in Central and East Java with Abdurrahman Wahid, the wily leader of the nation's biggest Muslim group.

Just months ago Wahid was at odds with Suharto. Then, he was backing Megawati Sukarnoputri, that other famous daughter (of first president Sukarno). The government helped expel her as head of the Indonesian Democratic Party last year. Now the influential and ever-pragmatic Wahid is introducing Tutut to his followers as "a leader of the future." What intrigues and troubles many Indonesians is the suspicion that Wahid, known in the past for his outspoken pro-democracy views, could now be echoing Suharto's wishes. Maybe Tutut's very public debut is more than just ceremonial. Rather than just aim for a parliamentary seat, she may be headed for the best seat in the house – the vice president's.

And then, maybe not. Tutut is popular, but she would not necessarily be a welcome choice for vice president. Such obvious nepotism would anger many and frustrate hopes for more open political and economic systems. Which is exactly the point, says University of Indonesia political scientist Arbi Sanit: "Suharto has to be confident that his policies will be continued." And that his family and its vast business empire will be protected.

The 75-year-old Suharto is not retiring yet. He will certainly win a seventh five-year term next March, though some expect him to step down mid-way. Others worry his health could force him to relinquish power, or that he could die in office. In any case, the vice president would take over. Golkar (read: Suharto) has not yet announced a nominee for vice president, and Tutut is certainly not the only person mentioned. If the president put her name forward, though, "no one would oppose such a move," says a Golkar official.

Tutut has guarded her political ambitions as closely as she does her company finances. Old family friends recall her as something of a risk-taker. An early romance with a drummer did not meet her parents' approval, and the boy was shipped off to Europe. Marriage to Indra Rukmana, heir to his father's Coca-Cola bottling business, was more acceptable. Since then she has done little to unsettle the family. The daring attitude that friends remember may be something of the past.

She certainly seems cautious about her own political future, not broaching the subject at all during the rallies. The region is Golkar's toughest battlefield, and Wahid's stomping ground. East Java is a constituency with more voters than any other and perhaps more angry voters than any other. Support for the Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP) as well as for Megawati is strong. Still, no one doubts that Golkar will once again win the parliamentary polls. The challenge this time is to secure about 70% of the vote, and the 17 seats Golkar lost in 1992.

Tutut is supposed to be charming the 30 million members of Wahid's Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) – 10,000 at a time. Her message is compelling. At her first stop in Sidoarjo, a small town outside of Sura-baya, she said: "Areas that do not choose Golkar will still be helped [with development money], but those that do choose Golkar will certainly get more help." And her alliance with Wahid is obviously appealing. The nearly blind 56-year-old leader – Gus Dur to his followers – is revered in rural Java. Even so, her success at wooing voters is not guaranteed. Before one meeting in Pekalongan in Central Java, Golkar workers tried to replace PPP's green flags with their own yellow banners. Angry PPP members burned down the stage; Tutut and entourage had to sneak through town to a closely guarded site for a rally much smaller than planned. Clashes between the two parties continued for more than a week.

Even Wahid admits that his entente with Tutut, and Suharto, is controversial. Wahid is a religious man and a consummate politician whose Democracy Forum has always irritated government officials. Wahid refused to endorse Suharto's 1993 presidential nomination; the next year the government attempted to push him out of the NU leadership. That failed. Wahid stayed in power; Suharto refused to acknowledge his victory. Wahid had also been critical of Tutut and her military ally, army chief Gen. Raden Hartono, whom he believed had led the effort to oust him. It was not until last November that Wahid and Suharto reconciled with a now-famous handshake – which has seemingly led to an embrace. In doing so, Wahid may have been yielding to pressure from other NU leaders, who do not want to see their organization marginalized. Now even the general is welcomed on stage. One theory has Tutut blazing the trail for Hartono – to whom she is close – as the v.p. choice.

"New leaders, new thoughts, new political networks are emerging," Wahid explained to his followers. "Whether the NU is exploiting or being exploited does not matter. Everything in this world can be exploited by someone." Relations between the nation's most important Muslim group and the government have not been this relaxed in years. But if officials think Wahid will start keeping his criticisms to himself, they may be surprised. He has promised to speak out when necessary. He says he will continue to push such unpopular causes as better relations with Israel.

Make no mistake: Tutut and Wahid probably share few convictions. Their match was carefully calculated by Suharto to benefit both. "It is mutually advantageous," says Juwono Sudarsono, vice governor of the National Defense Institute and a prominent intellectual. "Tutut needs the support of the ulamas [Muslim teachers] for Golkar. Gus Dur wants to promote his vision of Islamic principles within government." In other words, Tutut secures the votes she needs to satisfy Dad. And Wahid reasserts his position as the spokesman for the Muslims. (Though Indonesia is technically 90% Muslim, true practitioners are considerably fewer.) The loser would be Wahid's rival B.J. Habibie, who heads the influential Indonesian Muslim Intellec-tuals Association. Habibie is also the research and technology minister, a vice presidential contender – and a diehard Suharto loyalist.

Would not the president protect his people? In Indonesian politics, nothing is that straightforward. One way Suharto, as master manipulator, stays in control is by making sure his courtiers are constantly agonizing over their jobs and their relationship with him. Even Tutut, who is family, needs to be ever aware of one overriding fact: Suharto rules.