By Kanupriya Kapoor
SERANG, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesia's first female governor, smiling broadly, looks down from billboards that line the pot-holed roads of Banten, the country's fifth-most populous province that she has ruled for almost a decade.
Except she's not actually there. Ratu Atut Chosiyah, 51, is in jail in the capital Jakarta, 90 km (55 miles) away, facing charges of bribery and extortion.
After years of support from national politicians, Islamic clerics and jawara - street gangsters reputed to have magical powers — Chosiyah's empire is crumbling, the latest in a series of scandals weighing on Indonesia's ruling coalition ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections.
Graft scandals have dramatically eroded for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Democratic Party-led alliance in the country that has the world's biggest population of Muslims and is Southeast Asia's largest economy.
The scandals, accompanied by rising prices and a slowdown in growth, have opened up support for the main opposition PDI-P party of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, who lost Indonesia's first direct presidential poll to Yudhoyono in 2004.
"For us, Banten is one of the most important provinces because it's one of the biggest provinces in Indonesia," said Hasto Kristianto, vice secretary-general of PDI-P, which several polls predict will come out on top in April's general election. They also show it is now the front runner in Banten.
"So we are focused on consolidating that support and building it up, because the public is very disappointed with Ratu Atut."
The national anti-graft agency, known by its Indonesian initials KPK, accuses Chosiyah of bribing a judge, who is also in jail, to favor her candidate in an election dispute. It has seized her family's fleet of luxury cars, including a Lamborghini and a Rolls Royce, while local media has published details of a $500,000 renovation of the governor's private residence and overseas shopping sprees.
Chosiyah, also known as Ibu Atut, has not commented on the case against her but her lawyer maintained she was innocent.
"In the context of the bribery case, Ibu Atut is absolutely not involved and does not know about the money transfer that was carried out," said her attorney Tubagus Sukatma, referring to the money reportedly paid to the judge.
Always dressed in the headscarf and neck-to-toe gown of an orthodox Indonesian Muslim woman, Chosiyah heads a political dynasty that for years has dominated Banten, a hardscrabble province two hours drive from the gleaming skyscrapers of Jakarta.
Her father won a series of construction contracts from former autocrat Suharto and then became a regional political chieftain. Chosiyah has built on the relationship, forging links with Golkar, a political party promoted by Suharto that is part of the ruling coalition.
In 2002, Chosiyah eased into the vice governor's chair when Banten was carved out of West Java province. She became governor in 2005.
Seven members of her family, including her son, sister, daughter-in-law and sister-in-law, currently hold political positions in the provincial government.
Asked about the family's wealth, Chosiyah's sister-in-law, Airin Rachmi Diani, who is also being investigated by the KPK, told media last month: "One's job, wealth and challenges all come from Allah and belong to Allah."
Family spokesman Fitron Nur Ikhsan denies allegations of nepotism and voter intimidation, saying the family's rise to power is based on genuine public support.
"The public assumes that several family members are (in government positions) by design but it's not like that," he told Reuters. "How can the governor stop her family members from exercising their constitutional right to stand for public office?"
The headline-grabbing corruption case against Chosiyah is a stumbling block for Golkar, which is clawing its way back to the political center stage after falling from public favor when Suharto was ousted from power nearly 16 years ago.
Opinion polls conducted in the wake of the scandal showed over a third of Banten's 10 million voters support deputy governor Rano Karno, who is from the PDI-P. He is scheduled to be named acting governor by the federal government because of Chosiyah's arrest, which would give PDI-P control of three out of five provinces in densely populated Java, the country's political and economic heartland once dominated by Golkar.
The scandal also reflects a wider malaise in the decentralized political system that emerged in Indonesia when Suharto's iron grip over the country was ended in 1998.
In some regions, greater autonomy led to positive reforms and the rise of a new generation of leaders. But Banten appears to shine a light on the unwelcome side of the new freedoms given to local leaders and bureaucrats, who are now less answerable to the central government.
More than half of Indonesia's 539 local leaders are currently under investigation for corruption, according to a joint survey by the Home Affairs Ministry and local NGO Regional Autonomy Watch.
"I think that right now PDI-P benefits overall from the perception that the ruling parties are deeply mired in massive corruption scandals," said Douglas Ramage, a Jakarta-based political analyst at Bower Group Asia consultancy.
"Banten is not immune from national trends and the implication of the governor and other senior Golkar officials just feeds into that overall public perception."
(Editing by Jason Szep and Raju Gopalakrishnan)