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Indonesia’s drifting democracy

Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s ousted founding father Sukarno, has the thankless job ove managing day-to-day affairs of the world’s fourth most populous nation — and one of its most troubled. By Kari Huus.
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If ever there were a thankless job, it is running Indonesia in the year 2000. But it is a position that Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the nation’s ousted founding father Sukarno, has been quietly pursuing for decades. Now vice president, “Mega” has say over day-to-day affairs of the world’s fourth most populous nation - and one of its most troubled.

On her plate: fierce religious violence, a decimated economy, a partially formed democracy and the corruption trial of Suharto, the long-time strongman who ousted her father. However, Megawati, liked and respected for her political pedigree, remains unproven as an administrator and an office-holding politician.

Her ascent is laden with irony. In the massive protests that led to the 1998 ouster of President Suharto who had ruled the country with military fist for 32 years, Megawati was wildly popular. And when the first reasonably fair general elections came around in June 1999, her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI) won 185 of the 500 elected MPR seats.

Outmaneuvered for the presidency
But in October, she was outmaneuvered for the presidency by rival Abdurrahman Wahid. Wahid’s National Awakening Party won just 57 seats, but the moderate Muslim cleric cobbled together a coalition government and enough support to win the presidency. A wily politician with links to the military and the backing of a 30 million-strong Muslim organization, Wahid was able to martial support form conservatives offended by the idea of a woman president, and then named Megawati his vice president.

Because she heads the largest party in his coalition, Wahid could not easily ignore her demands for power, according to Adam Schwarz, an Indonesia expert and editor in chief of Asia Inside Newsletter, “even though few think a larger role for Megawati is the answer to the Indonesian government’s management woes.”

It was not a perfectly democratic transition, but most Indonesians celebrated anyway, since it was also not the catastrophe many had predicted would take place when the heavy controls on this fractious society were lifted.

It is true that Wahid moved forward with plans to reform the monopolies that dragged down the economy, lifted controls on the press and gradually eased the grip of the military on Indonesia’s government by sidelining top brass. He has slowly pressed ahead with corruption proceedings against the Suharto clan, who amassed fortunes over the last decades, allegedly by abusing their positions.

The thrill is gone
But the euphoria, or relief, has long-since worn off. Restive provinces of Indonesia have used the uncertainty in Jakarta to press claims for independence. Religious and ethnic rivalries have flared into violent clashes, killing hundreds. Opportunistic crime and desperation in the failed economy have erupted, and vigilante law has taken hold in some areas.

Not too surprisingly, Wahid hasn’t solved all these problems. But worse, he has angered lawmakers with several dozen visits to foreign countries even as crises mounted. He became famous for contradictory statements, infighting among his cabinet, and generally poor management - some critics even compared him unfavorably to the unpopular interim president B.J. Habibie. Paralysis in Wahid’s coalition, inability to stop the unrestin the provinces and criticism that he had yielded too much to separatists all plagued the administration.

Wahid also sacked two popular ministers and refused to explain why. One had just finished speaking at a convention of foreign CEOs in Hawaii. According to Bob Lees, executive director of the Pacific Basin Economic Council, “the speech he gave had gone a long way to restore confidence (among the foreign businessmen). Then he went back to Jakarta and got sacked.”

Wahid’s health hasn’t helped the situation. At 60, he’s been rendered nearly blind by a series of strokes, and is apparently very frail, frequently falling asleep in public proceedings. Some observers have also attributed Wahid’s mood swings and paranoid-sounding statements to his frail health.

In the lead up to the current session of the parliament or People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), the criticism escalated into calls for impeachment. As the session opened, Wahid at last apologized for the shortcomings of his administration, said he “fully understood” the demands to improve the management. “That is why I will delegate to the vice president the tasks of carrying out the day-to-day technical details of running the government, preparing the Cabinet’s working agenda and determining the focus and priority of the government,” Wahid said in a statement read to the MPR, a body which has the power to select and remove the president.

It was a bigger concession to the MPR than originally expected, since Wahid had previously talked about appointing a minister to run the government in response to legislators demands. As the Jakarta Post noted, the announcement was made to “large applause from the floor.”

Too soon to celebrate
Megawati, who with her supporters triumphed in expanding her role, has her work cut out if she wants to prove she’s not a political lightweight, and certainly if she aspires to be president in 2004.

Although her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle has the largest number of seats in the assembly and the national parliament, she rarely speaks in public and in the spring faced a challenge for the leadership of her own party.

Earlier this year Wahid gave “Mega” — a former housewife — responsibility for ending bloody fighting between Muslims and Christians in the eastern Maluku islands, where thousands have died. Despite several peace missions to the remote archipelago, also known as the Moluccas or Spice Islands, there is little sign of the violence abating.

As with Wahid and Habibie before him, Megawati must contend with agitators who rile up crowds and play on local tensions. Some of the agitators are believed to be backed by the military or organized by Suharto allies. It is a ploy that has been used many times in Indonesia to create enough chaos to justify a military crackdown.

Falling behind the tigers
Despite those challenges, Megawati has remained on the offensive — criticizing Wahid over the economy, which continues to languish. The political jousting in Jakarta and troubles the provinces have hit the Jakarta stock market, down 22 percent year to date and the currency, down 18.5% so far this year. While much of Asia has staged a comeback from the devastating currency crisis of the late 1990s, Indonesia is losing its membership in the ranks of “tiger economies.”

In her new role, it will be Megawati’s job to help meet the goals set by the International Monetary Fund, in exchange for continued infusions of cash, to help restore political stability in order to foreign investors to return and to push through unpopular reforms to aimed at restoring economic health. “Bank and corporate restructuring have really only just begun,” said Asia Inside’s Schwarz. “Recapitalization of the banking system is likely to require an amount equal to 60% of GDP, and those bills are going to hang over the government for many years to come.”

To bring the growth and confidence will take an extraordinary show of leadership by Megawati, and she will need Wahid’s cooperation. Even some of her young and most optimistic supporters are questioning the ideals that brought about the end to the stable, but oppressive Suharto years. “I think what’s interesting is why all the small tigers - Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines - all survive,” wrote one Indonesian professional in Seattle whose family remains in Indonesia. “But not Indonesia... are they getting too much democracy so things get out of hand?”

Asked about Megawati, he acknowledged that the candidate he supported faced a tough road ahead. “It’s hard to inherit such a mess,” he said. “By the same token, if she succeeds, she will be considered as a hero.”

Reuters contributed to this story.