Worried Indonesian president steps in to lead unpopular ruling party

JAKARTA Sat Feb 9, 2013 3:06am EST

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JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's president has stepped in to take over his ruling party, so damaged by a series of corruption scandals that even its senior members concede it faces a rout in elections next year.

One of his ministers was felled in December after being named as a suspect in a bribery investigation by a powerful anti-corruption agency which has in recent months sunk its teeth into several politicians, including top members of the country's most successful Muslim-based party.

The latest issue surrounds the chairman of the ruling Democrat Party, Anas Urbaningrum, who has been linked to a graft case surrounding the construction of a sports stadium, and whom President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono effectively pushed from his post on Friday night following his return from an overseas trip.

"While I am sorting things out ... I am giving (Anas) time to focus on his KPK (Corruption Eradication Agency) legal case," Yudhoyono told reporters at his home on Friday night.

However, the president said Anas remained party chairman, counter to what media have said was a strong push by senior party members to have Anas ousted completely and try to repair the party's tattered image.

Indonesia has long been listed as among the world's most graft-ridden societies.

But it is only more recently, after little more that a decade of democracy in the world's fourth most populous nation, that Indonesia has really had the means through the KPK anti-corruption agency to chase down suspected officials and politicians.

The agency has had to fend of repeated attempts, including by police and legislators, to weaken its powers. But its head, Abraham Samad, sounded confident enough this week to state that even the president could not interfere with its investigations.

The rash of graft cases comes ahead of next year's general and presidential votes, with no clear front runner for either.

Government coalition member the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) has also been badly hit after its head was forced to step down after investigations into the allegations the party was involved in a beef-import scam.

That has led to widespread media speculation that the position of Agriculture Minister Suswono, a member of the PKS party, could be at risk.

SPECULATION, SETBACKS

The PKS is the most successful of the Islam-based parties in the world's most populous Muslim country. But it has faced repeated scandals including an incident when one of its MPs was photographed looking at pornography on a tablet computer in parliament.

With Yudhoyono coming to the end of his second and final five-year term next year, speculation is high over who might take over. Months of horse-trading are expected as more powerful parties try to lure candidates with some chance of winning.

One top Democrat Party official told Reuters last week that the ruling party itself would be lucky to get 10 percent of the vote next year.

The other main party, Golkar, is pushing controversial businessman Abdurizal Bakrie as its presidential candidate but he is seen even among some of his own party officials as unpopular and unelectable.

His campaign appears to have suffered a setback when sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters on Friday that his debt-ridden company was in talks to sell its majority stake in a media company, potentially depriving him of easy national television access.

One of the most frequently mentioned names is the ex-son-in-law of former autocratic ruler Suharto, Prabowo Subianto, who heads the relatively small Great Indonesia Movement Party.

Prabowo, who has been denied a visa to the United States over his chequered military past, is the brother of one of Indonesia's wealthiest businessmen.

There is speculation he might be discussing a tie-up with the head of another major party, with links to the country's second biggest Muslim organisation, who is close to Yudhoyono.

In the absence of a strong contender, some have suggested that the popular Jakarta governor, Joko Widodo, who has escaped the graft smears that usually attach themselves to the country's top politicians, might try his chances.

(Editing by Robert Birsel)

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