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Thursday, October 21, 1999 Published at 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK


Megawati: Advocate of Indonesian unity




[ image:  ]
Megawati Sukarnoputri - or "Mega" has taken the vice presidency of Indonesia after years of living in the shadow of her father, the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno.

But it is his reputation as a charismatic and still affectionately remembered leader that helped her reach the highest table of the complex world of Indonesia politics.

After her party, PDI-P, won June's parliamentary elections, her supporters believed that her elevation to president was almost certain.

The surprise election of Abdurrahman Wahid appeared to go against the election results and sparked violent protests from Megawati's supporters throughout Indonesia.

Megawati came to prominence in the Indonesian Democratic Party, PDI, which originated as a nationalist party formed by her father in the 1920s.


The BBC's Jonathan Head: "It's her ability to attract such a diverse following that makes Megawati such a strong contender"
Charismatic and capable of winning people over, she rose swiftly through its ranks to become its leader until the Suharto government, fearing her popularity, engineered a party coup in 1996.

That plot and the subsequent storming of the party's headquarters had the opposite effect and turned her into a figurehead for opposition to the Suharto regime.

Such was the support for her among PDI followers, most of them switched to her breakaway faction which she named as PDI-Struggle, leaving the former party to slide into oblivion.

Despite this appeal as an opposition symbol, she was barely involved in the mass movement which toppled Suharto in May 1998, causing many to doubt her judgement and leadership qualities.

She sparked yet more controversy when she called for the former president, reviled by other opposition leaders and the popular press, to be treated leniently despite the fact that pressure for a corruption trial was growing.

Favoured choice

Nonetheless her party won the largest block of votes in the June elections and she quickly became the popular choice for president with more than half of voters backing her.

With such massive support, analysts prophetically predicted that there would be a violent backlash in the streets if she failed to win the support of 700-member People's Consultative Assembly (MPR).

In the weeks running up to their vote, many members expressed doubts over Megawati's leadership qualities and Indonesian nationalists believed that, having been a victim of an authoritarian regime herself, she would sympathise with the East Timorese cause for independence.

Tough line

But instead, she questioned President Habibie's decision to allow the referendum on independence in East Timor, supported pro-Jakarta refugees in West Timor and advocated a tough line against the Aceh separatist movement.

These statist views latterly bought the support of some nationalists who disapproved of anything they they perceived would undermine Indonesia as defined by its founders in 1945, including the rise of Islamist parties.

However, in other areas she has remained something of a political mystery.

She is surrounded by an astute circle of economic, political and spiritual advisers but she is often criticised as lacking the political will to unite Indonesia's fractious political camps.

She shuns media interviews, has said little on the economic crisis and refused to take part in head to head debates.

It is this reluctance to pull on the political boxing gloves that analysts say has cost her dear.

While Megawati was originally considered a near certainty to be elected president, many believed that she played her political cards wrongly in the weeks leading up to the vote.

She held talks with army chief General Wiranto amid speculation that he would throw his weight behind her, only for the influential military man to suddenly withdraw from the political race.

Other parliamentarians, including Muslim parties, were unwilling to give their backing to a woman for president and she came to be regarded as aloof and complacent - dangerous attributes in the complex and swift-changing world of Indonesian politics.

In the end it appears her populist appeal, as someone who stood for the poor and disenfranchised as well as nationalist interests, was not enough in the face of the politically astute Abdurrahman Wahid.

But her supporters are not likely to drift away and she will undoubtedly play a key role in forging an alliance on the future of Indonesia.



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Indonesia's 1999 elections - The Asia Society


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In this section

Profile: Abdurrahman Wahid

BJ Habibie: Suharto's successor

Megawati: Advocate of Indonesian unity

Profile: General Wiranto

Amien Rais - National Mandate Party (PAN)