Rachmawati Sukarnoputri, 70, Sibling Rival in Indonesia Politics, Dies

A daughter of the founding president, Sukarno, she feuded with her older sister over who would inherit his mantle, losing that fight. She died of Covid-19.

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Rachmawati Sukarnoputri, a daughter of Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, and the loser in a struggle with her older sister, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, to become his political heir, died on Saturday in Jakarta, the country’s capital. She was 70.

Her death, at Gatot Subroto Army Hospital, was announced by Sufmi Dasco Ahmad, an executive of her political party, Gerindra. The cause was Covid-19. She died at the end of a week in which Indonesia reported its highest number of deaths from the virus in a single day, 24,836.

The revered Sukarno founded the Indonesian republic in 1945 after the withdrawal of Dutch colonial rulers, and the family name still resonates almost mystically among many Indonesians.

A trigger for the feud between the sisters was the collapse of a compact among Sukarno’s children to stay out of politics as long as the man who supplanted their father, President Suharto, held power.

Suharto deposed Sukarno in a coup in 1967 and ruled Indonesia for 31 years before being forced from office in 1998. Sukarno died in 1970, and Suharto died in 2008. Both men, like many Indonesians, used only one name.

Megawati Sukarno, the older sister, broke the family compact when she joined the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) in 1987. The aura of the Sukarno name had the intended effect of attracting support to the party, and that same aura would help carry Mrs. Megawati to the presidency in 2001.

At different times on various pretexts, Mrs. Rachmawati accused her sister of opening the country to the spread of communism, of undermining the constitution, and of treason. She dismissed her sister as being “a biological child but not an ideological child” of their father.

Mrs. Megawati, famously taciturn, did not publicly engage in the spat, and even in a private face-to-face meeting with her sister was reported to have listened but to have said nothing.

Mrs. Rachmawati entered politics after the fall of Suharto, helping to found the Pioneers’ Party in 2002. But it won only a tiny number of seats in Parliament. She joined the Nasdem Party in 2012 but quickly left it to join the Great Indonesia Movement Party, or Gerindra, the party of Suharto’s son-in-law Prabowo Subianto. At her death she was on its board of trustees.

“Rachmawati always sided with anyone who opposed her eldest sister, including Prabowo,” said Andreas Harsono, a Human Rights Watch researcher who wrote a book about the early days of Indonesia, “Race, Islam and Power” (2019), and who knows the Sukarno siblings.

“It is a dysfunctional family,” he said.

Mrs. Rachmawati was accused of being involved in a plot in 2016 to rally hard-line Islamists to kidnap the Christian governor of Jakarta. She was one of 11 people arrested on treason charges related to the plot but was released a day later, denying that she had been involved and saying, “How could I be doing treason against the country that my father helped found?”

The Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, was a close ally of President Joko Widodo, whose Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle was headed by Mrs. Megawati.

Diah Permana Rachmawati Sukarno was born in Jakarta on Sept. 27, 1950, to Sukarno and his third wife, Fatmawati, who was considered his official consort for ceremonial occasions. Rachmawati was the third of five children of that marriage and had several half-siblings from Sukarno’s eight other marriages.

Like Mrs. Megawati, she took on the patronymic Sukarnoputri, meaning daughter of Sukarno, to emphasize the connection to their father.

When she was 3, her mother left the palace in protest of Sukarno’s plans to take a new wife, and Rachmawati was raised mainly by a foster mother.

She attended the Cikini College Elementary School, Cikini College Junior High School and Santa Ursula High School in Jakarta. Her pursuits were reported to have been traditional dance, fencing, swimming and badminton. She studied law at Universitas Indonesia but dropped out in 1969.

Before going into politics, Mrs. Rachmawati helped set up the Sukarno Education Foundation in 1983; it changed its name to Universitas Bung Karno in 1999. She earned a law degree there in 2002.

Along with Mrs. Megawati, she is survived by three sons, Hendra Rahtomo, Marhaendra Putra and Mahardhika Putra; a sister, Sukmawati Sukarnoputri; two brothers, Guntur Sukarnoputra and Guruh Sukarnoputra; and a number of half-siblings. She was divorced twice. Her third husband, Benny Sumarno, died in 2018.

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