by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
May 14, 2001
AS INDONESIA AWAITS HER RISE, MEGAWATI'S RULE IS STUDIED
JAKARTA, May 14, 2001 -- In late 1996, Megawati Sukarnoputri was a real loner, although perhaps not by choice. The authoritarian regime of President Suharto organized a bogus party congress and supported her opposition inside the Indonesian Democratic Party to topple her from its leadership.
Suharto was then a tremendous power here, controlling the military, the bureaucracy, the media, and the business world to the extent, said an Indonesian thinker, that "the state was personalized."
Faced with such overwhelming power, many Megawati supporters abandoned her.
Late one evening that Spring, I got an interview with Megawati in her house in the Kebagusan area in southern Jakarta. It was a quiet evening and we had a one-hour interview, after which she walked me to the front gate. We chatted and looked at her garden.
She suddenly murmured about tending her garden in times of difficulties. I quickly asked her how she would survive the political pressures she would face.
"I think I have the stamina," she replied quietly. "I have experienced politics since I was born." She was reminding me that she was the daughter of Indonesia's founding president Sukarno (like many Indoneisans, Sukarno used just one name).
I left the house feeling a little bit puzzled. Nobody then expected Suharto to be forced to step down in the midst of the Asian economic crisis nearly two years after that evening's conversation.
Her stamina proved equal or better than the pressure. Megawati immediately became the silent symbol of the reform movement. Her party gained the largest vote total in the 1999 election, even though she was sidelined in the ensuing presidential election. Another opposition leader, Abdurrahman Wahid, won the number one seat, and Megawati became his number two.
Now, 18 months after the election, impeachment is looming for President Wahid, and Vice President Megawati's stamina has been proven once again. She is now close to becoming the chief executive herself. Many in Jakarta's elite circle have begun to speculate what kind of administration Megawati will have. Who will be in her cabinet? What kind of policies will she set?
Amien Rais, the chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly, the highest legislative institution in Indonesia, said last week that he was confident Megawati would be a better president than Wahid. "Many, many people told me she is a good listener," he said. "She will listen to different advice and I believe she will pick up very soon."
Wahid will answer a parliamentary censure on May 31, during which the parliament is very likely to recommend his impeachment. Although nothing is certain in Indonesia, it seems increasingly likely that Wahid will leave his office no later than August.
If parliament impeaches Wahid, the constitution requires power to be handed over to Vice President Megawati.
Sadly, Megawati's likely accession to office would come amid Indonesia's wrecked economy and precarious unity. The government is currently facing a budget crisis. Even if she overcomes the mid-year crisis, her honeymoon may last no longer than the end of this fiscal year.
Indonesia faces a rising level of macro-economic instability it has never experienced before. Economic planners will have to lower fuel subsidies and cut transfers to regional governments - both politically sensitive issues requiring considerable will. The number of unemployed is alarming, sinceless and less investment is being made. Much of the government's budget is used just to pay the salaries of civil servants and soldiers.
Her aides said Megawati will choose her economic advisors herself, letting her coalition partners have other cabinet portfolios. But Megawati will have a stronger coalition than Wahid's. Her party is not only the biggest f= action in parliament but also has the support of more than 50 percent of it= s 500 members.
But her downside, unfortunately, is politics. While Wahid hasattempted to accommodate separatist sentiment in Aceh and Papua -- so far with minimal success - Megawati is likely to take a much harder line. She opposes the idea of Indonesia becoming a federal country with separatist regions gaining some autonomy.
Megawati is also closer to the military and not as liberal as Wahid, whose views on democracy, human rights, religious tolerance and media freedom have won kudos in many parts of the world.
She always believes that she should preserve the legacy of her father: nation-building. That is not easy task here, though. Suharto left behind a lot of injustices, especially in places like Aceh and Papua (the former East Timor).
Whether Megawati can navigate the difficulties ahead is still an unanswered question. The first indication should come with the selection of her assistants. If she manages to get the best of her desired line-up, especially among those who showed their golden qualities during the Suharto repression, she will have a better chance of survival.
The rest, as she told me that evening, is stamina. And she has a whole lot of that.
Andreas Harsono, an AR Correspondent in Indonesia since 1996, won a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1999. He has since returned to Jakarta to work on extended editorial projects.