The Rise Of A Female Minister In Indonesia: Puan Maharani

OVER the past week, Indonesia’s new Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture Puan Maharani has led meetings on the rollout of new nationwide health and education assistance cards, gone brisk-walking with ministry staff, and dropped in on the glitzy Jakarta Fashion Week.

It is all part of her job overseeing eight ministries, including religion, health, social affairs, education, and youth and sports.

But news of her appointment two weeks ago surprised some, who questioned her experience, or lack thereof, to take on the post.

It did not help that photos were making the rounds of Ms Puan riding in a golf buggy from one end of the presidential palace compound to the other for the first Cabinet meeting while all the other ministers walked.

But make no mistake: The 41-year-old lives up to her name – Puan Maharani translates as Madam Empress. Not only that, she is also the next-generation torchbearer of the most prominent family in Indonesian politics.

The granddaughter of founding president Sukarno is the youngest child and only daughter of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who heads the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P).

Ms Puan reportedly wanted to be President Joko Widodo’s vice- presidential running mate, but surveys suggested his ratings would suffer if they teamed up.

Although she lacks experience in governance and is the youngest minister in Mr Joko’s Cabinet, she is not a new face in politics.

“We know Ms Puan is a female politician steeped in experience who has proven herself as a commander in the 2014 election and who has experience in social activities, especially for the small people,” Mr Joko said when announcing his ministerial slate.

Political analyst Achmad Sukarsono of The Habibie Centre think-tank told The Straits Times: “She has something nobody has – the Sukarno bloodline, and the connection to the leader of the biggest party in Indonesia.”

He sees her ministerial appointment as a necessity for Mr Joko’s political survival.

But Ms Puan’s rise in stature also comes amid an ongoing debate among party loyalists over whether a person needs to be a direct descendant of Sukarno, or best shares his values, to lead them.

Ms Puan was 14 when her mother first became an MP for the then PDI in 1987 and witnessed at close quarters then president Suharto’s efforts to orchestrate a party coup and unseat Ms Megawati from the post as her popularity grew.

Ms Puan, a communication studies graduate from the University of Indonesia, was also a witness to how the party her mother led won 33 per cent of the vote in the 1999 general election after Mr Suharto’s downfall, and how backroom dealing saw Ibu Mega, as Ms Megawati is widely called, relegated to vice-president.

But Ms Megawati got the top job two years later after her predecessor Abdurrahman Wahid was impeached in the wake of graft scandals and incompetence at the helm. Ms Puan became a close aide, accompanying her mother on trips around the country, including disbursing assistance to disaster victims.

Ms Puan has two older brothers from Ms Megawati’s first husband, who died in a plane crash. They have largely focused on business and stayed away from the public eye.

She is likewise guarded about her husband, oil and gas businessman Happy Hapsoro, and their two teenage children.

But she told women’s magazine Femina in a recent interview that it was the PDI-P’s sliding result at the 2004 general election and her mother’s loss in the first direct presidential election that sparked her formal entry into politics.

“How could we lose when, at the previous election, we got 33 per cent?” she recalls asking her father.

“Papa would only say, if you want those answers… it means it’s time you enter politics.”

Her late father Taufik Kiemas, a businessman and former student leader widely seen as the lead politician in the family, had of course nudged his daughter and only child early on.

Ms Puan recalled how she initially regretted being “compelled” to attend numerous meetings he had with important people she did not really know.

“I used to say I didn’t know what to say. But he said: ‘There’s no need to speak, what’s important is that you listen’… Now he’s gone, I realise why he kept inviting me along,” she told Femina.

“By being there, I got to know them, and know what Papa would discuss with them. Not only that, I got to understand the attitudes and positions they had on issues. To me, this is crucial in the political world.”

In 2007, Ms Puan took the plunge, heading the PDI-P’s women’s section and then standing for election in 2009.

She won 242,504 votes – the second-highest number nationwide – losing to the younger son of then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had 327,097.

Ms Puan later took on a greater role in party matters, heading its political section and then heading the party’s MPs in Parliament from 2011. She also led the party’s efforts to help PDI-P MP Ganjar Pranowo win the central Java gubernatorial election last year.

Reports based on her last publicised wealth declaration put her assets at more than 34 billion rupiah (S$3.7 million), including land and three Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

She was also named head of the party’s general election team. But some were disappointed that she did not manage to secure a solid result for PDI-P for, while it was the top party with 19 per cent of the votes, this was well below the 27 per cent target.

Mr Joko denied widespread speculation of an internal rift in the wake of the election result, telling reporters a few days after the April 9 vote, in what some read as a veiled allusion to her shopping trips: “After the election, Ms Puan left for Hong Kong. I haven’t seen her since then.”

After the July 9 presidential election, she was tipped to become parliamentary Speaker, but the PDI-P-led coalition failed to secure majority support from other parties to get her the job.

Still, now that she is a key minister, several PDI-P leaders have tipped her for greater things.

Said Mr Trimedya Panjaitan: “She needs to prepare herself to be vice-president in 2019.”

That is not a given, of course. How Ms Puan performs in her current job will determine whether she can make the cut.

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