Indonesia’s next presidential election may still be three years away, but that has done little to dampen speculation over who will put themselves forward. In fact, reaching the three-year countdown last month appears to have spurred speculation, with parties and candidates strongly hinting at their interest and opinion polls of dubious independence fuelling some potential candidacies and dousing others.

Incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the first president elected via direct election in 2004, and then re-elected in 2009, faces a term limit, which means he is ineligible to stand again in 2014. Yudhoyono is the first president after the fall of strongman Suharto in 1998 to reach this point, prompting fears the tail end of his time in office could leave him as a lame duck. A corruption scandal in his Democratic Party, ineffectual responses to sporadic religious violence against Christians and the Ahmadiyah Islamic minority and escalating conflict in Papua has led to the image of a president who lacks the stomach for decisive action. One commentator a few weeks back even speculated that if Yudhoyono didn’t turn things around next year, he might face impeachment.

Given the candidates must be nominated by a party, the country’s fragmented political system makes separating the contenders from the pretenders all the more difficult. Here, political parties operate less as ideological rallying posts and more as brand names. Other than a few Islamic parties who emphasise their religious strain, there is little to separate one from the other on matters of policy, and consistency is not one of their collective strengths. The upshot of it is that few parties have a strong, loyal voter base, and most are heavily dependent on the profile of candidate.

Yudhoyono’s rule is backed by a coalition of six parties, on whose support he relies to get legislation through the House of Representatives. The Democratic Party is struggling to find a credible candidate, and any prospect of a smooth succession from one of their number to another seems increasingly unlikely. Other parties in his coalition (the Prosperous Justice Party, the National Mandate Party, the United Development Party, the National Awakening Party and the Golkar Party) are steadily distancing themselves from him, and any one of them could stake a claim. Then there’s the main opposition party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, which is starting to get its act together in keeping the government on its toes. And then finally there are the minnows, the largely empty vessels that are the political equivalents of shelf companies waiting for a swashbuckling candidate keen to capitalise on the fact they have met the onerous registration requirements and are ready to roll.

There are plenty of opportunities for twists and turns over the next three years, but these are the major contenders:

Aburizal Bakrie — The Bakrie family have a towering influence over Indonesian business and politics, and Aburizal is no exception. An unashamed populist, Bakrie has wide support among ordinary Indonesians, but his name attracts derision among the Jakarta elite. He seems to have escaped lasting damage to his image over his previous stint as a minister — in his role as co-ordinating minister for people’s welfare he led the government’s response to the fatal 2006 Lapindo mudslide, an event that followed drilling by Lapindo Brantas, a mining company majority owned by the Bakrie family. Unlike many other candidates, he is a genuinely national figure rather than merely a Javanese one — from Aceh to South Sulawesi, posters with his image are common. Bakrie is the Golkar chairman, and despite (or perhaps because of) it being the party of Suharto, it is still well respected. Combine its organisational muscle with his substantial wealth (Forbes put it at $2.5 billion in 2009), and it is clear that Bakrie’s candidacy will be a formidable one.

Prabowo Subianto — Indonesia has long welcomed military figures into political leadership roles, and Prabowo is keen to continue that tradition. The retired general serves as chairman of the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), one of the micro parties outside the ruling coalition. Prabowo has grown up in the establishment, being the son of a former finance minister and having once married one of Suharto’s daughters. The retired general has also become something of a business figure of late, controlling a mining concern, Nusantara Group, which stands accused by a rival of gaining favourable treatment from regulators. Figures from the nation’s anti-corruption watchdog shows he had an estimated personal wealth of about $160 million as of 2009. He served as the head of Kopassus during Suharto’s rule, a period during which the special forces unit stands accused of myriad human rights abuses. While that history is likely to hurt his image abroad, Indonesians appear more forgiving.Sukarnoputri  — Despite a previous stint in office that most remember as a stalled period of inaction, Megawati, the daughter of founding president Sukarno is again in the mix. Whether she’s learnt much from her less-the-stellar stint in office remains unclear, but on the surface little appears to have changed. Megawati’s party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, seemed to wallow for a while in opposition, but has sharpened up its act somewhat in keeping the six-party ruling coalition honest. Unfortunately for Megawati, she has remained largely aloof from the debate, instead leaving the heavy lifting to the highly capable legislator Eva Kusuma Sundari. The former president’s embryonic campaign was dealt a blow when her husband, prominent political figure Taufik Kiemas, recently mused that she’d be too old for the presidency come the election. (He said she’d be 68, although she will in fact be 67.)

Sri Mulyani Indrawati — Mention Sri Mulyani’s name to most Indonesians, and they’ll gush with enthusiasm over the local girl made good. Really good. The trained economist spent five years as finance minister earlier in Yudhoyono’s reign before last year taking a job at the World Bank as managing director. Her time as minister established her reputation as a beacon of integrity and competence, qualities many Indonesians perceive to be lacking in their leaders. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she also left office with disdain from some leading business figures, Bakrie among them, who were part of the cosy political-corporate nexus. The biggest barrier to a Sri Mulyani presidency seems to be that she’s not interested in it. She’s studiously avoided encouraging speculation of her candidacy, perhaps because of her World Bank role but also in large part because of the bare-knuckle fighting presidential elections necessitate. A group of supporters went to the considerable effort and expense of establishing a political party — the Union of Independent People, or Serikat Rakyat Independen (SRI) — with the sole aim of drafting her to run.

Surya Paloh — Slightly eccentric media mogul Paloh seems keen to capitalise on his public profile to achieve something higher.  So far, the push by the owner of news station Metro TV and newspaper Media Indonesia doesn’t seem to have taken hold of the public imagination, perhaps a sign that the blossoming of multiple media outlets means that no single outlet holds the power it might have in more concentrated times. To form a vehicle to run, he effectively created a political wing of a social welfare organisation, NasDem, through the process dragged on like a bad sinetron soap opera. Paloh was recently trumpeting the fact that he had won over fellow media mogul Hary Tanoesoedibjo to his campaign, through whether that will help him reach out beyond that particular demographic remains to be seen.

Mahfud M.D. — The country’s Constitutional Court chief has led a largely scandal-free period on the bench, an admirable effort given the myriad temptations on offer to those he leads. When re-elected by his peers for a second term in office in August, he said he wanted the court’s judges to be “lights to people who are depressed due to corruption and injustice”, feeding speculation he may wish to achieve that objective on an even bigger stage. He recently called for the centralisation of the nation’s Anti-Corruption Court in Jakarta after some questionable verdicts in regional courts. The one concern that did arise during his leadership was over a forged letter used as the basis for awarding a disputed seat in the parliament, but Mafhud is considered distant from the scandal and acting with integrity once he learnt of it. A decade ago he served as defence minister under Abdurrahman Wahid while with the Islamic National Awakening Party, with whom he would presumably stand again if he’s keen. It’s questionable whether he has the dogged political instincts that a run for the top office would require.

Anas Urbaningram — For a while, everything had lined up perfectly for Urbaningram: he’d secured the chairmanship of the Democratic Party as it was riding on a Yudhoyono high, and was in the box seat to succeed him. Then an utterly putrid scandal broke involving Muhammad Nazaruddin, at the time a Democrat legislator and the party’s treasurer, dragging down Urbaningram with him. Nazaruddin is accused of accepting kickbacks from the winning bidder for the contract to build the athletes’ village for this month’s Southeast Asian Games, and as the net closed on him, he accused Urbaningum of being in cahoots with him. The allegations are all at the investigation stage, but the public dismay at the whole scandal makes it hard for anyone involved to recover their political reputation. Besides, as a bland party loyalist, it’s doubtful that he has the charisma to rival others in the field.

Jusuf Kalla — Read an Indonesian newspaper, and there’s a fair chance former vice-president Kalla will have his opinion quoted on one topic or another. There are few issues in the archipelago on which he doesn’t have something to say, no matter how distant he may be from the matter. Kalla served as VP during Yudhoyono’s first term, but left the ticket to run for presidential in his own right in 2009 under the Golkar banner, finishing in third place. The affable Kalla is part of the proud tradition of political figures that also have significant commercial interests. His latest venture has been encouraging some of Indonesia’s fast-growing cities to adopt a monorail system, just like the ones that his company builds. Bakrie’s presence on the stage means that Golkar would not be an option for Kalla this time around, but micro parties in search of a candidate would happily accept him. If he wants to run, that is, which so far he has not indicated an interest in.

Ani Yudhoyono — The first lady’s name appears in dispatches occasionally, but most consider it a joke. Ibu Ani is well-liked and respected as an elegant mother of the nation, but is considered too delicate for the rough-and-tumble of politics. Still, if the Democratic Party continues to struggle for a credible candidate, you never know.

Trying to gauge the public mood on the field of candidates is tricky. Indonesia’s opinion polling industry is still in its infancy, and geographic and cultural diversity adds to the challenge. Perhaps most disturbingly of all, candidates and parties have been known to commission research they expect to be favourable to them in a bid to boost their profile and signal their keenness to run. It is this last factor that perhaps best explains why there is no real pattern in the findings of different pollsters.

One pollster, The Reform Institute (which, oddly, excluded Megawati from consideration), had Bakrie in first spot, followed by Probowo and Kalla. Rival Soegang Sarjadi Syndicate had Prabowo on top, with Mahfud next and Sri Mulyani in third place. Then there was the Indonesia Voting Network, which had Megawati returning to the presidency, followed by Prabowo and Bakrie.

It’s hard to know what to make of those results at this early stage, other than to note that it’s a major leap forward from the days of Suharto less than a decade-and-a-half ago.