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Indonesia has a population of more that 240 million people, making it the world's third largest democracy, just behind India and the U.S. But governing the cultural heart of that democracy is an un-elected monarch - a sultan. This unusual arrangement has survived unchallenged for six decades – until now. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this story on a royal kerfuffle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Within the Sultan's court, an intrigue is in progress. Kings and princes are battling for control of the kingdom, its wealth and its women. It's dramatized in a Wayang or puppet show, backed by court musicians at the royal palace in Yogyakarta.

A real-life political tussle began a year ago, when Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono proposed that the governor of Yogyakarta be elected by the people. For the past six decades, the sultan of Yogyakarta has doubled as an un-elected provincial governor.

Widodo, who uses just one name, is a 73-year-old court retainer and one of more than 2,000 guards, cooks, and artisans who serve the court. Dressed in a batik sarong and cap, he says that folks here in Yogyakarta do not agree with the president.

WIDODO: (Through translator) I disagree with the idea of electing our governor. Most Yogyakartans cannot accept it either. This place is special. The Sultanate existed before the Republic of Indonesia was created.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

KUHN: Dee before the Republic of Indonesia was created.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

KUHN: Deep inside the palace, court musicians rehearse their repertoire.

Yogyakartans care about the Sultanate because it's known as the wellspring of Javanese high culture. That includes the rich batik cloth, the epic Hindu Ramayana ballet, and the gamelan music ensembles that draw visitors here from around the world.

The sultans themselves were once seen as semi-divine beings, descended from the rulers of the Majapahit Empire who held sway over much of Southeast Asia from the 13th to 16th centuries.

Prince Prabukusumo is the current sultan's younger brother. Speaking in his ornate home within the royal walled city, he says that Javanese are also proud of the sultan's role as a guardian of tolerance towards their diverse Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist religious heritage. He points out that this role is embodied in palace architecture.

PRINCE PRABUKUSUMO: (Through translator) In other countries, presidents or kings sit with their backs to the wall for security. But the Sultan of Java sits in the middle of a wall-less hall. The philosophy is that all winds can touch his body. The wind symbolizes the voice of the people.

KUHN: Many Indonesians admire the current sultan's father, not as a figurehead but as a shrewd political player who has consistently picked the winning side in times of conflict. For example, in 1945 he staked his money and legitimacy on the fledgling Republic of Indonesia in its war against its former Dutch colonial masters.

Prince Prabukusumo emphasizes that his father sacrificed his own sovereignty.

PRABUKUSUMO: (Through translator) This was a tremendous sacrifice of dignity, because the Sultanate erased its own national name to become a mere part of the republic. Can you imagine that? There was no other king or sultan in the world who supported the birth of a republic - none.

KUHN: The sultan's gamble paid off, and Indonesia's constitution was written so that he could serve as both monarch and governor. Indonesia's House of Representatives is now debating how to resolve the current dispute.

Political scientist Purwo Santoso, of Yogyakarta's Gadjah Mada University, advocates preserving the sultanate as a symbolic position, above the fray of partisan politics.

PROFESSOR PURWO SANTOSO: We come up with the idea of establishing new institution, which allows sultan as the most respected people in the province, but he's not subject to election. And then somebody else serving as governor, and he's the one elected in accordance with the constitution.

KUHN: In pre-colonial times, many Southeast Asian nations were ruled by sultans. Some still are - for example the tiny Sultanate of Brunei. What Professor Santoso is suggesting is basically a constitutional monarchy at the local level, within a modern republic.

SANTOSO: It's like mixture between traditional legacy, on one hand, and the modern structure that we inherit from colonial rule. And we are now in confusion, so to speak, how to plan them together in one coherent system.

KUHN: But Prince Prabukusumo suggests that his brother may not settle for being a mere figurehead. The sultan has made two abortive electoral bids for Indonesia's presidency. And that, his brother says, is the real reason President Yudhoyono has challenged him.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.

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