By Yang Razali Kassim, For The Straits Times
INDONESIA'S campaign to elect its next president has officially begun.
Over the next two months or so, 185 million voters will be gripped by the fifth presidential election in post-Suharto Indonesia but the third one in which voters can directly elect their preferred leader.
It will be a head-to-head contest between two new political players - Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), and former special forces general Prabowo Subianto.
This, in itself, is significant, though the real winner is already apparent - the enduring legacy of Sukarno, Indonesia's first president. Does this suggest a certain kind of direction that the country may take over the next five years?
Mr Joko is backed by the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), the winner of the April 9 parliamentary elections, the inheritor of Sukarno's PNI, and whose leader is Sukarno's daughter, Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Mr Joko himself came out of the blue. Little known before this outside Central Java, his sweeping popularity, due to his common touch rather than fiery oratory, has probably not been seen since Sukarno.
Strangely, the image and proletarian philosophy of Sukarno is more forcefully asserted by Mr Joko's rival. In a highly symbolic show, Mr Prabowo declared his candidacy in Sukarno's former house in East Jakarta.
Plans for a third candidate in the form of Mr Aburizal Bakrie, one of Indonesia's richest men, fizzled out at the eleventh hour.
It will not be plain-sailing for Mr Joko, the front runner. His rival has amassed a formidable coalition of six parties, with a combined strength of 49 per cent of the popular vote. In contrast, Mr Joko's coalition has a smaller combined power of four parties giving him 40 per cent of the popular vote.
The player who tipped the balance in Mr Prabowo's favour was Mr Bakrie who, in a surprise move, declared his support just before nomination closed on Tuesday.
How did the race come to this? The April parliamentary elections threw up three leading parties in a new pecking order - Ms Megawati's PDI-P, Mr Bakrie's Golkar and Mr Prabowo's Gerindra - each of which could compete in the presidential election only if they met a certain threshold. None of them did, which forced them to form coalitions to qualify.
Opinion polls, however, suggested that the top two winnable candidates would be Mr Joko and Mr Prabowo. Although Golkar came in second in the parliamentary elections, Mr Bakrie was not deemed popular enough due to some business controversies.
In the end, two contesting pairs emerged. Mr Joko and Mr Jusuf Kalla, a former vice-president and ex-Golkar chairman, formed one team, while Mr Prabowo and Mr Hatta Rajasa, a former economic coordinating minister, formed the other.
Mr Joko easily met the threshold of 25 per cent of the popular vote, or 20 per cent of parliamentary seats, when his PDI-P secured the early backing of three other parties to form a coalition.
This forced Mr Prabowo to scramble for support from the remaining parties. He eventually secured the backing of Golkar and four Muslim-based parties - PAN, PPP, PKS and PBB. PAN leader Hatta Rajasa emerged as Mr Prabowo's vice-presidential running mate, leaving no room for Mr Bakrie.
Mr Bakrie was initially resigned to staying out of the contest, especially given Golkar's factionalism. Golkar eventually, however, closed ranks, endorsed Mr Bakrie as its sole candidate, and gave him a wide mandate to play the role of a kingmaker - which Mr Bakrie did with some agility, though it was a tad too late.
When Mr Joko stuck with Mr Kalla as his running mate, Mr Bakrie surprisingly threw his weight behind Mr Prabowo and gave up his own bid to be president or vice-president. This unexpected manoeuvre left Golkar split.
While retaining Mr Hatta as his vice-presidential candidate, Mr Prabowo promised Mr Bakrie an unprecedented role - as Menteri Utama (first minister) - in a Prabowo Cabinet. There has been some discussion about what this really means.
Gerindra said it would be like a coordinating minister or a senior minister a la Mr Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. Mr Bakrie, however, described it as a trisula or trident leadership. "Overseas it is known as prime minister. Over here, the name is Menteri Utama," Mr Bakrie, reportedly told the Indonesian media. Should he win, Mr Prabowo would have to restructure the Cabinet to create such a position. Some have questioned whether this is possible in Indonesia's presidential system. But when Sukarno was president, he had a series of prime ministers, in addition to first vice-president Mohammad Hatta.
Mr Prabowo justified such a position as befitting Mr Bakrie's role as a "kingmaker". Indeed, while either Mr Joko or Mr Prabowo could be king, this presidential election is as much about those behind the scenes as it is about the candidates.
Apart from Mr Bakrie, two others are also widely regarded as kingmakers in the race: Ms Megawati and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Ms Megawati, the "queen" of the PDI-P, is the de facto power behind the throne that Mr Joko will sit on should he win the presidency. Ms Megawati relishes this role, though she was initially disappointed to have to give up her ambition to be the PDI-P's preferred candidate - in favour of Mr Joko - due to her lack of popularity. But Ms Megawati has been able to transcend personal and family interests to advance the legacy of Sukarno through the PDI-P as a ruling party.
The third kingmaker is President Yudhoyono. Despite his Democrat Party suffering a steep drop in popularity due to corruption scandals, it still won a respectable 10 per cent of the popular vote, thus making it the fourth largest party.
Dr Yudhoyono is shrewd enough to know that his party still has some ability to influence the course of the presidential election. While choosing to be neutral now, he leaves the option open to throw his weight eventually behind Mr Prabowo, for whom Mr Hatta, his son's father-in-law, is the vice-presidential candidate.
In this new power game, it is significant that the ones who will determine the future course of Indonesia are two new players - Mr Joko and Mr Prabowo.
Regardless of who wins, the next Indonesian president will be of great interest to Indonesia's regional neighbours. How will the Sukarno legacy influence the future of Indonesia's economic direction and its external relations?
The writer is a senior fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.