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Indonesia's first ladies have always been influential, but soon the country won't have one

ABC News - May 5, 2024

Natasya Salim – Throughout Indonesia's almost eight decades of independence its presidents have always had partners by their side – until now.

For the first time, the country of 270 million will not have a first lady (or gentleman) once presiden?t-elect?? Prabowo Subianto takes office in October.

In a country that in many ways strongly holds onto its traditional values, Mr Subianto's lack of a partner was considered an issue ahead of the February election.

There's even been speculation the former general could reunite with his ex-wife – the daughter of Indonesia's longest-serving president, Suharto.

So how important is the role of a first lady in Indonesia and what will it mean for the country not to have one?

First ladies are not empresses

Political scientist Athiqah Nur Alami said Indonesia's first lady traditionally had several "formal and significant" roles.

"They have ceremonial roles of accompanying the head of country or her husband to events," Dr Alami said.

"They also play a surrogate role, where they often represent the president ... when the president is not able to attend. In this case, they can form or construct the image of the country."

Historian Bonnie Triyana said in most democracies, the role of the first lady was simply to be a president's wife.

"She is not an empress, in the sense of a feudalistic monarchy, nor is she a person who formally has a special role, except accompanying the president," he said.

"In a country that's more democratic and has a more accountable political system, the first lady has limits to her role."

But he said Indonesia was different. "I think having a first lady in a country like Indonesia where democracy is still a work in progress ... people still see the figure rather than ideas," he said. "It is very influential."

Indonesia's first ladies

The inaugural first lady of Indonesia was Fatmawati, the third wife of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, who married nine times.

He had already divorced his first two wives before Indonesia won independence.

Fatmawati, who like her husband and many Indonesians went by one name, was considered a national hero for sewing together two panels of red and white fabric into Indonesia's flag, despite crying from pains related to her pregnancy.

She was also the mother of the fifth president, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The longest-serving first lady was Siti Hartinah, who was also known widely as Tien Suharto.

She was married to Indonesia's second president, Suharto, for 30 years, and was seen to be influential – privately and publicly.

"Whatever Tien didn't like would've impacted what her husband did," Mr Triyana said.

Just like her husband, Ms Suharto's life was never far from controversy.

She was known as "Madame 10 Per Cent" over claims she tried to shake down a 10 per cent cut from projects linked to the development of a theme park she initiated in 1972.

Ms Suharto and her husband denied pilfering from the "Beautiful Indonesia in Miniature Park".

Hasri Ainun Habibie was first lady during the term of Indonesia's third president, BJ Habibie, and was known for fighting for the rights of vision-impaired people to access cornea donations.

She even managed to recruit the Indonesian Ulema Council to the cause, despite debate about whether donating corneas was allowed under Muslim beliefs.

Sinta Nuriyah, the fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid's wife, built an Islamic boarding school and was vocal about human rights and freedom of expression.

The wife of Indonesia's fifth president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Ani Yudhoyono, organised polio immunisation campaigns and a Smart Car education campaign, with mobile vans filled with books for children.

The immunisation campaign ran in 2006 with more than 23 million toddlers participating.

In 2014, Indonesia became one of 11 South-East Asian countries that received the polio-free certificate from WHO.

Meanwhile, under the Smart Car program children were able to borrow books from a catalogue of more than 14,000 titles.

Ms Yudhoyono was one of the government officials whose phone was tapped by Australian intelligence in 2013, triggering the president's anger.

A leaked diplomatic cable revealed accusations Ms Yudhoyono had been actively influencing her husband on political matters.

Outgoing first lady Iriana Joko Widodo has been accused of orchestrating "an underground movement" that allowed her son Gibran Rakabuming Raka to be elected as vice-presidential candidate.

Despite the occasional controversies, Dr Alami said the first lady had always been like a "pillar" for the president of the day.

Suharto was the perfect example, she said. After his wife died in 1996, his government began to fall apart as it was supposed to be dealing with a monetary crisis.

"This shows that there is one missing pillar that might have caused the shake," Dr Alami said.

She said Mr Habibie and Mr Yudhoyono also fell into "deep sadness" after their wives died.

Indonesia without a first lady

Prabowo Subianto's victory in the 2024 presidential election has again raised questions about the presence of the first lady.

Mr Subianto married the daughter of Suharto, Siti Hediati Hariyadi (popularly known as Titiek Suharto), in 1983 but they divorced in 1998.

Dr Alami said having a president rule without a first lady would not be an issue in any official way. "There are no official regulations requiring that the president be accompanied by the first lady," she said.

However, she said the absence of a first lady would have a consequence. "In a socio-cultural context... [a first lady is needed] as a balancing force," she said.

"Usually men are seen as perhaps tough, have a difficult persona, and are not negotiable. But when accompanied by the first lady, they can soften their husband's hard lines."

Mr Triyana said Mr Prabowo's lack of a partner had diminished as an issue since the 2014 presidential election.

"Society is becoming more open, not questioning whether [the first lady] is there or not," he said.

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2024-05-05/role-first-lady-indonesia-election-prabowo-subianto/10378790