Mega-wow or Mega-hype?

Three decades after Suharto overthrew her father in a bloody coup, Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno’s daughter, has had revenge, helping bring down Indonesia’s seemingly invincible strongman. Now, following the country’s first free elections in four decades, the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father is poised to reclaim the presidency for her family and, perhaps, her people.

By Ron Gluckman/Jakarta, Indonesia

HER STORY SOMETIMES SEEMS A POLITICALLY-CORRECT FABLE, in which a female David fells a modern Goliath. Indeed, Megawati Sukarnoputri has overcome huge odds in her Cinderella-style rise from housewife to possible future president of Indonesia.

  Should the People’s Consultative Assembly, Indonesia’s parliament, anoint her in November 1999 as only the fourth president in the half century since independence, there will be a moral to this classic tale, too. After all, Megawati spearheaded the downfall of Suharto, who deposed her father, founder of the republic, in a bloody 1966 coup.

  But much more is at stake than revenge. As international attention focuses on East Timor and the ongoing economic turbulence in the world’s fourth largest nation, analysts can only guess at what deals are being cut in backroom meetings. New scandals shift the balance of power daily.

  Reporters detail coup scenarios. Amidst the turmoil is one uniform concern: Can Megawati deliver a happy ending to a divided nation facing crisis upon every front?

  "Nobody really knows what Megawati is about," said one Western diplomat in the capital, Jakarta. "She hasn’t issued policy statements, made proclamations or given much indication of what Indonesia would be like with her as president."
The West is warm to Megawati, he added, "but to be honest, at this stage, she’s really a big question mark."

  During the election campaign, she stonewalled the foreign press so often that one American correspondent dubbed her "the stealth politician" and noted her complete ambivalence about "the vision thing."

  All that is really certain is that she isn’t Suharto, who ruled Indonesia with complete control for more than 30 years. That may have satisfied voters fed up with decades of corrupt Suharto government. But with only 34 percent of the popular vote, Megawati has a shaky mandate going into a new parliament that convenes in October and will help pick the president in November.

  Megawati’s platform remains a mystery, even to her advisers and likely future cabinet members. "She has plans," insisted Megawati’s legal adviser and deputy party chair Dimyati Hartono. But when pressed, he can’t offer specifics. Like others drawn to Megawati, he insists she will carry on the work of her father.

  This is a common impression — that Megawati is the repository of the Sukarno legacy. Yet Asian observers find it odd. There is little resemblance between the charismatic father and his brooding, reclusive daughter. "She carries on his work, but with a different style," said Hartono.

  "These are different times, so it’s only natural that Megawati would develop a different style. Sukarno was flamboyant. She’s much more moderate, calm and with a kinder feeling. She really cares about the suffering of people."

  That’s clearly the feeling on the street, where Megawati-mania rages despite the naysayers. Ulema, or Muslim priests, influential in the world’s largest Islamic nation, have questioned her faith — Megawati is Muslim, but refuses to cover her head in the devout manner. Others suggest a woman cannot rule a Muslim nation, despite the record in many neighboring countries.

  If anything, the attacks have only strengthened her standing as a Woman of the People that the establishment fears. "She cares about the poor people," said a haircutter in Jakarta. "She will end the corruption in politics that is ruining the country," added a cab driver. "She will bring justice to the little people."

  Added Josef Kristiadi of Jakarta’s Center for Strategic and International Studies: "From the standpoint of Javanese culture, Megawati is the Queen of Justice."
  Megawati, 52, may indeed become savior to the little people, but she is certainly not one herself. Born January 23, 1947, in Jogjakarta, in west Java, she is Sukarno’s eldest daughter by his second wife, Fatmawati. She grew up in the presidential palace, staying even after her mother left as Sukarno took third a wife, Hartini.

  Megawati traveled widely as a youngster, attended to by servants. But the high life ended when Suharto deposed Sukarno from the post he’d held since independence. With her father in house arrest, where he died in 1970, an ostracized Megawati dropped out of Bandung’s Pajajaran University before finishing a degree in agricultural science. She never returned.

  Many say she became bitter, unable to look beyond the tragic circumstances of her downfall. She was also scarred by a series of personal tragedies. Her first husband, Surendro, an Air Force pilot, disappeared in action over Irian Jaya, another restive region that has been battling the government for autonomy or independence as long as East Timor. His body was never found

  She then eloped with Egyptian businessman, Hassan Gamal Ahmad Hassan. The marriage was a disaster, lasting anywhere from a single day to several months, depending on whom you ask. "She never talks about it," said one aide.

  Megawati seemed content to be a mother of three and wife to third husband, Taufik Kiemas, who runs a chain of gas stations. Taufik reportedly pushed her into politics. Many say he is the ambitious one. Others aren’t quite as kind. "He’s corrupt as sin," said one Jakarta reporter.

  The pair joined the legislature in 1987. That was when Megawati’s personal assistant, Sri, joined the fold. "Things have changed fast," said Sri, recalling when there were no mobile phones or requests for interviews. Megawati lived simply in south Jakarta. Sri cleaned house and minded the kids.

  Ironically, it was Suharto who turned this unlikely adversary into a credible foe, in a manner reminiscent of the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos and Cory Aquino, to whom Megawati is often compared. Other than the famous name, Megawati wasn’t widely known in 1993, when she became head of the official opposition Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). In Suharto’s Indonesia, it was opposition in name only. The party rubber-stamped ballot-stuffing exercises that returned Suharto to power on call for a full 32 years.

  Yet even in this harmless role, she haunted the old ruler. Observers say the intensely superstitious Suharto sensed a ghost from his past. 

  So, he stripped her of the ineffective party mantel. In the process, he exposed a fatal Achilles heel. Critics of the corrupt government rallied around Megawati’s new Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle, or PDI-P. Soon, she headed real opposition that, after riots in May, finally pushed Suharto aside.

  The next step could be the presidency, which Megawati maintains is her due as the largest vote-getter in the June election. However, under the formula used to allocate representation in the People’s Consultative Assembly, her PDI-P will claim only 153 of 700 seats in the electoral college. While that is the largest single block of votes, it’s a long way from locking up the presidency.

  Already, several Muslim parties have joined a dump-Megawati coalition that the PDI-P has ineptly failed to counter. And nobody is counting out ruling party Golkar, which garnered only 22 percent of the vote. However, that’s the second-highest total, and Golkar still runs the government along with the system of payoffs and favors that keeps it going.

  All that is certain in Indonesia’s murky political maneuvering is that President B.J. Habibe, Suharto’s appointed successor after he stepped down, is unlikely to be around by then. A devoted lifelong friend of Suharto, he was picked in 1988 to be a vice president who would never challenge or threaten the real power in Indonesia. True to form, Habibe has faithfully played Gerald Ford to Suharto’s Nixon, allowing the former ruler to avoid answering charges of widespread corruption that allegedly cost Indonesia billions.

  Habibe, under fire over his handling of East Timor and banking scandals, talks about fears of a coup — not only from the military, but from opponents in his own party. No longer the unfailing election machine, Golkar is tottering. "It’s more like rats fleeing a sinking ship," quipped one Western diplomat.

  "We’re in a problematic transitional stage between elections and change, with the old government still in power that has no reason to be there according to the results of the election," said Marzuki Darusman, a lawyer who then headed the national Commission on Human Rights. (He is now Attorney General). Young, articulate and rising Golkar star, he leads a Dump-Habibe wing.

  "This is a historic time for Indonesia," he said. "There are new politicians on the scene who are young, capable and had been prevented from coming up by Suharto’s overstay in office."

  Darusman, who confirms power-sharing talks with Megawati, said he would support her bid to the presidency. "She has shown strong political leadership skills. She understood and came to symbolize the nation’s aspirations for complete renewal, and this overshadows any shortcomings she may have."

  But, in politics, such support comes at a price. "Yes, there is a lot of deal-making going on," he admitted with a sly grin. "It’s testing the skills of politicians. It’s a new thing, negotiation and compromise. At the moment, nobody is really able to calculate the outcome, not even Megawati."

  The wild card now in Indonesia, as always, is the military. No ruler other than Suharto ever stood up to the generals, who still impose their might on much of this sprawling nation of 13,000 islands, contributing to unrest from Aceh to East Timor. Will Megawati, who stared down Suharto, be able to rein in the military?

 "More to the point," said one Jakarta diplomat, "What will be the cost? She doesn’t have a position of great strength. With the kinds of deals she has to cut, she is bound to wind up a weak president." Megawati is on record as being against corruption and favoring increased transparency, easy stands that win valuable points in the West. She also has friends in high places, including President Bill Clinton, whom she met when he was still governor of Arkansas. She was invited to his inauguration.

  Her success will depend largely on the people she chooses for advisers. Thus far, there are worrying signs, not only from the rag-tag band of outsiders drawn to an outlawed opposition. Old cronies are reportedly worming their way into the party. Critics say her husband is cashing in on a lifetime of missed opportunity with questionable appointments. Megawati has shown a lack of sensitivity to these and other allegations, however true, that her organization is heavily run by Christians, always a concern in volatile Indonesia.

  But the main concern is what is she all about? Megawati provides few hints. During the election, she refused to join a presidential debate. Advisers say her silence is only the Javanese way, one of modesty and restraint.

  Megawati remains defiantly mum, keeping this reporter waiting for hours at a weekly party brainstorming session, then strolling silently, without a smile, past the black-and-red party colors to her waiting Toyota sedan. She neither waves, nor says a word.

  Her party symbol - the head of the animal in the circle of black and red - eerily resembles that of America's championship basketball team, the Chicago Bulls. It’s really a water buffalo, revered in this rice-producing nation. "It means strength," said her driver.

  Water buffaloes are also known for an ability to weather monstrous changes in climate. They simply store up water and wait for the climate to improve. With Suharto gone, Megawati’s time seems to be now. But she won’t make predictions. Her comment to reporters: "You’ll have to wait and see."

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as MSNBC, which ran this during the Indonesian election campaign in late 1999. 

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