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JAKARTA - Indonesia stumbles from crisis to crisis under President Wahid and the one person with the clout and popular support to replace him prefers to sit in the wings. What makes Megawati so static?
If you happen to be driving into Jakarta on the Jagorawi highway, keep your eyes open for a shiny blue Volkswagen Beetle bearing the license plate M3GA: the carefully coiffed matron behind the wheel, some say, represents Indonesia's only realistic hope of avoiding a dizzying plunge into economic and social chaos. The license plate and the four police outriders are a giveaway that the car's occupant is Indonesia's Vice President, Megawati Sukarnoputri. But ignore those and she could easily be mistaken for a middle-class housewife, out for a spin, seemingly without a care in the world.
Megawati's greatest strength has always been a placid stubbornness, in this case reflected in her determination to continue leading a semblance of a normal life despite being Vice President. She still drives that prized Beetle (a replacement for one she drove in the 1960s), takes off regularly to tend her beloved garden in the highland city of Bogor and spends time with her grandchildren. But her strength—the sheer immovability of Mega, the rock who helped to bring down President Suharto by her refusal to give way to years of intimidation and is herself the daughter of the country's founding President Sukarno—is turning into a millstone around Indonesia's neck.
Only Megawati, who heads the largest party in parliament, can force the removal from office of the current President, the increasingly erratic Abdurrahman Wahid. But she has been conspicuously, thunderingly silent for almost a year, refusing to do so much as criticize him publicly; her closest friends agree she probably never will. She only comments on issues through aides and never holds press conferences to directly address problems of the day.
Her reluctance to take matters into her hands is the product of her earliest memories and deepest convictions, her whole being: everything that makes Megawati Megawati also makes it impossible for her to initiate a public campaign against the President, even to press aggressively for his removal behind-the-scenes. And without that push, the odds of Wahid's leaving office any time soon are "fifty-fifty at best," says Kwik Gian Gie, a close Megawati ally and former coordinating Minister for the Economy, fired by the President last year.
The bottom line for Indonesia: Megawati's innate caution—or crippling inability to act, call it what you want—will condemn the country to months, possibly years, of lawlessness, bloody strife and economic ruin. "If Gus Dur stays on," says parliamentarian Alvin Lie of the Reform Faction, using Wahid's popular nickname, "Indonesia will disintegrate before 2004 because the government is not dealing with economic, social and regional problems." As to Megawati, recently retired senior General Hendropriyono, who has known the Vice President since they were students together, says: "She will just wait."
Until when? Despite his unpredictable, sometimes bizarre behavior, Wahid remains a shrewd strategist, fully capable of stalling parliamentary attempts to remove him from office for years to come. Take his latest gambit in the complex and constitutionally murky attempt by parliament to unseat him. The President, nearly blinded by three strokes, sat blithely in assembly last Tuesday, even nodding off occasionally, as one of his ministers read out a reply to a motion of censure passed on Feb. 1 by an overwhelming majority of legislators. The rambling speech struck a somewhat conciliatory tone, most notably an apology to parliament and the nation for "any inappropriate behavior." But it was all too obviously a tactical retreat, aimed at making it more difficult for parliament to proceed as expected with a second memorandum of censure necessary before a formal vote to remove the President from office can be taken. If parliament does press ahead, the vote to remove Wahid could theoretically come by August, though the exact constitutional procedures are untested and could be challenged in court, tying the process up for an unknown period. "What he's doing is very cunning," says Subagyo Anam, a member of parliament from Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle or PDI-P. "It is very difficult to resist."
Still, few would disagree that Wahid is only delaying the inevitable: eventually, Megawati will take over the country's top job. "There is just no one else," as Hendropriyono says. The question is: Will there be a country left for her to rule? Throughout the 5,110-km belt of islands that make up Indonesia, bloody communal strife and festering independence movements threaten to splinter the country. The demoralized and overstretched police and army are far out of their depth. Each week, scores are killed in Kalimantan, Ambon, Aceh and a host of other, smaller flare-ups.
Adding fuel to the fire is Wahid's mismanagement of the economy: exports are falling due to a collapse in U.S. demand, foreign aid donors are threatening to turn off the tap unless overdue reforms are made in the forestry and banking sectors and GDP is expected to slow this year to 3.7% from 4.8% in 2000. Take for example his attempts to amend provisions in the central bank law guaranteeing the institution's independence, which have set the country on a collision course with the International Monetary Fund. The IMF, leading a $5 billion aid package to Indonesia, has refused to release a disbursement of $400 million due last December. The World Bank is enforcing stricter lending conditions, unconvinced of Wahid's sincerity in attacking rampant corruption. New foreign direct investment is stagnant and some long-established overseas investors have begun to bail out. One of the harshest blows came in mid-March when oil giant Exxon Mobil closed down operations at its huge natural gas plant in Aceh, a loss of $1 billion a year in revenue for the government. The Jakarta stock exchange hit a two-year low last month and the rupiah fell to its lowest level since October, 1998. "Even if Megawati does become President, the damage will already be done," says Sri Mulyani, an economist from the University of Indonesia. "She'll be inheriting an unmanageable mess."
If the Vice President isn't moved by the prospect of the country's collapse, you might think the humiliation heaped on her by Wahid would itself be enough to spur her into action. The President has repeatedly told visitors—in theory off-the-record—that his deputy is severely limited intellectually, not to say plain stupid, a mere housewife incapable of ruling the country. Nor are the humiliations strictly private. On one memorable occasion, as one of her advisers recounts it, the President summoned Megawati to his office to inform her that she would be announcing a cabinet reshuffle, bridled when she asked the identity of one of the names, sent her away and had an aide announce the changes instead. When questioned about his Vice President's absence, Wahid told reporters she was taking a shower and would be a while. "You know what women are like," he said. After being forced by parliament to give Megawati a nominally greater role in running the government last year, Wahid has openly treated the arrangement as a sham, allowing her almost no real say in decision making, then complaining recently in a press statement that she should "be more active in making decisions."
Megawati would be justified in being incensed by Wahid's imperiousness. After all, it was her PDI-P that won a third of the votes in the general elections 18 months ago, making it the largest party in the legislature and eclipsing the roughly 10% share won by Wahid's National Awakening Party. In the parliamentary election for President that followed, the top job was snatched from her by last-minute horse trading and political maneuvering that included behind-the-scenes allegations by Wahid that she had accepted a large bribe.
So why does Ibu Mega—Mother Mega, as her supporters like to call her—remain silent? (She hasn't giv-en an interview to local or foreign media for almost a year and refused to talk to TIME for this article). There may be sentimental reasons. Megawati says she regards Wahid as her "elder brother"—the two played together as children and Wahid was her political mentor. But surely, that goodwill has long ago been exhausted by the president's insults. There are, of course, more practical reasons. She wants everything done by the letter of the constitution so that there is no question later about her legitimacy. "'Constitutionality' is her favorite word," says Subagyo, the PDI-P parliamentarian and former personal secretary to Megawati.
And then there are psychological reasons. Subagyo and other Megawati intimates say the Vice President also carries with her grim memories of how her father Sukarno was ousted from office by a military coup in 1965. She remembers the terrible slaughter that accompanied Sukarno's downfall, an eruption of killing that left half-a-million dead. "She's very frightened," says Eros Djarot, a longtime friend and former speechwriter. "Mega has nightmares about the masses rioting, about conflict between the PDI-P and the NU," or Nahdlatul Ulama, the 30 million-strong religious group that Wahid headed for 15 years before he became President.
That is an appalling prospect. But so is the alternative, the accelerating disintegration of Indonesia. Even many of Megawati's closest advisers believe the time has come for her to act. "To her, unity is everything," says Eros. "But in reality, unity is threatened by her silence."

With reporting by Zamira Loebis and Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta

Posted in Politics @ 10 April 2001 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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