JAKARTA, INDONESIA — After decades of father-knows-best leadership, Indonesia may become the latest Asian country that prefers a woman to head the national family.
Early results from the historic parliamentary election on June 7 show that Megawati Sukarnoputri's party is leading, raising her chances to become president in November.
But the root of her success is also her Achilles' heel. The daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, who shepherded the country to independence in 1949, she is faulted for her lack of leadership ability and vision.
Still, Mrs. Megawati taps into nostalgia for her father's populist appeal among the poor and nationalists. Rallies for her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) turned cities into rollicking seas of red, the party color.
If she prevails, she will join a group of women who inherited the aura of a powerful male relative - Asia's first wives and daughters club.
From Pakistan to the Philippines, Asian nations have embraced women who have taken over political movements their husbands or fathers were unable to continue. The legacy can be as much a blessing as a burden. Some women, like India's Sonia Gandhi, enter politics reluctantly despite strong urging. Others, like Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, pay a high price for their activism.
They face the challenges of wielding power without much chance to prepare for the job and of governing in countries where women are often seen but not heard. Yet while Western nations tout their gender equality, no region matches Asia for ladylike leadership.
Reasons for this range from the symbolic to the basic pull of clan loyalty. These leaders enter politics to continue the family work; their families often command the country's fascination and loyalty, much as the Kennedys do in the US. Despite cultural restraints on Asian women, supporters don't see these women as rising above their station, but as part of a dynamic family tradition.
"Family trumps gender," explains David Timberman, a consultant and Southeast Asia expert currently working in Indonesia. Like Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto's, Megawati's path to power began with her father. Sukarno, who used only one name as is common here, fought against Dutch colonizers and helped forge Indonesia out of a scattered Pacific archipelago. In 1966, Suharto forced Sukarno from power and kept him under virtual house arrest until his death in 1970. Almost a quarter century later, in 1993, Sukarno's daughter was drafted to lead the PDI. Megawati had led a quiet life until then, raising three children in a Jakarta suburb, and even now she does not come across as a political powerhouse. A heavyset woman with a broad, impassive face, she favors dark skirts and simple shirts over business suits.
Critics complain that she lacks her father's magnetic charisma, something even supporters acknowledge. "The first time I heard Sukarno speak, it was electric, what he could do with a crowd," recalls Abdul Madjid, who first met Sukarno in the 1940s and campaigned for Megawati in this election. "In that department, there's a wide gap between their abilities."
Despite Megawati's inexperience and lack of presence, Suharto harassed the PDI when it chose her as leader. But the move backfired, and Suharto's opposition transformed Megawati and her party into a credible opposition threat.
Political persecution is a central feature in the careers of Asia's female leaders. Pakistan's military government executed Ms. Bhutto's father and imprisoned her. Sri Lankan president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge lost a father to political assassins and, like the Philippines' Corazon Aquino and India's Sonia Gandhi, a husband as well. In Malaysia, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail recently launched the National Justice Party in a challenge to Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad's autocratic rule. Mr. Mahathir fired her reform-minded husband, his former deputy, who was subsequently jailed on highly controversial charges.
Their hardships are often a factor in these leaders' eventual success. Women like Bhutto, Mrs. Aquino, and Megawati led privileged and sheltered lives compared with the majority of their countrymen. But their public suffering allowed ordinary people suppressed by a dictatorship, military junta, or colonizer to sympathize and identify with them.
People's affinity for their symbols
That makes it easy for people to project their hopes onto women like Aquino and Megawati, making them national symbols of resistance and courage.
Megawati has also benefited from her father's populist legacy. In his speeches, he told Indonesians he "heard the message of the people's suffering." Though Megawati's 10-minute campaign speeches were mostly colorless exhortations to be careful and calm, supporters still cast her in her father's mold.
"She's seen as honest, clean, forthright, and a friend to the small people," says Adam Schwartz, an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. "The people want someone they can rally behind." In countries like Indonesia, where people long lived under the rule of one man and political parties are weak, it might be easier to rally behind another strong personality.
Megawati's challenge will be building the PDI-P into a credible governing force. The ruling Golkar Party's long monopoly on power means few people outside it have experience running a country. Mr. Schwartz expects Megawati to reach out to untainted Golkar technocrats for help.
Before then, she faces many hurdles, including Muslims who argue a woman shouldn't lead the country and question whether there are too many Christians in her party. Critics complain she avoids public debate and all talk of policy. Supporters say silence was a political strategy adopted under Suharto. Others point to culture.
"Rulers aren't supposed to say too much in Javanese culture; they're supposed to rule," observes Ron Palmer, a professor at George Washington University in Washington. At least one analyst thinks she'll have no problem coping. "If she didn't have the necessary skill, she wouldn't have gotten this far in the first place," says former environment minister Kusuma Atmadja Sarwono.