Indonesia's president-in-waiting keeps them guessing
Vice President Megawati stays mum on whether she's ready to take the reins.
When aides would go on tour with Indonesian Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, they used to try to get her to act like a politician - or at least, a celebrity.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"I'd keep saying, 'Smile. Smile!' 'Wave! Wave!' " recalls Erros Djarot, former chief adviser and cheerleader.
But campaigning and politicking do not come naturally to this daughter of Indonesia's founding father. And at a time when the country seems to be convulsing in crisis, critics say they wish the real Megawati would please speak up.
"If she's a good politician, this is the time to show leadership. But she doesn't say anything," says Salim Said, a political and social analyst.
As President Abdurrahman Wahid faces possible impeachment and demonstrators demanding his dismissal, all eyes are shifting to the vice president. Is she, as some view her, terse and careful? Or slow and inarticulate? A hardworking woman, or simply the heiress to a political dynasty? Opinion remains divided on what kind of leader Megawati would be.
Mr. Wahid's opposition suggested last week a power-sharing agreement that would increase Megawati's daily duties and reduce Wahid's role to that of figurehead. But she remains muted on aspirations for the presidency. Supporters say Megawati is taking the prudent route on a journey that has been littered with betrayals by false friends.
"She will check and check again, and then study the problem some more, because she doesn't give her trust easily," says Mr. Djarot. The two had a parting of ways, but Djarot, a member of parliament in Megawati's Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which is leading the call for Wahid to step down, would still prefer to see her replace Wahid.
In a nation whose inhabitants are about 95 percent Muslim, leading Islamists once rejected Megawati as a potential leader. A woman is not allowed to rule a nation, and she once prayed at a Hindu temple in Bali, showing that she was not a true Muslim, they said.
Last year, however, Megawati made the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and also went on an umrah, an off-season pilgrimage.
Now, "what is important politically is that no one can question her 'Muslimness'," says Azyumardi Azri, rector of the State Institute for Islamic Studies. "The main problem now is that lack of decisiveness of Megawati herself."
But to her admirers, Megawati's reluctance to throw her hat in the ring - at least officially - derives from a Javanese sensibility of not seeming too aggressive. "No one accuses her of being power hungry," says Subagio Anam, a senior politician and family friend. Mr. Anam says that even as a girl, Megawati, one of Sukarno's eight children, had the most charisma. "She was a very interesting person, in the way she spoke."
More than a quarter of a century later, when Megawati won a seat in parliament, she was skeptical about her chances of being taken seriously. "She was very shy," adds Anam, "and she said to her friends, including me, 'I cannot be a leader [of the country] because I am a woman.' " Anam says he and others pushed her to accept a position as party chairwoman. Now, says Anam, Megawati doesn't shun leadership, but she prefers to wait to be drafted to it. "In the past 1-1/2 years ... she has improved a lot in her problem with convincing people."