Indonesia's president-in-waiting keeps them guessing

Vice President Megawati stays mum on whether she's ready to take the reins.

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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.

"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.

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"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."

But Muchtar Bochari, another respected party elder who once was close to Megawati, says her performance - and tendency to wait for what she feels is due her - is disappointing. "We tried to make her realize that she cannot always hold her party together ... by virtue of being Sukarno's daughter." Mr. Bochari says over the years he has found her lacking managerial skills. "I began to doubt her ability to govern.... Her capability will depend on who surrounds her."

Housewife, or politician?

The Indonesian intelligentsia paint her as a housewife who isn't really up to the challenges of running an enormous and troubled archipelago. Her resume lists no political activity between 1965, when she was an activist in the student movement, and 1987, when she entered the house of representatives.

Her harshest critics point to the fact that she never completed college, while supporters say that she left university because of a family crisis - when her father was toppled by Suharto.

Other family tragedies awaited her. Her husband, a pilot, disappeared in 1971, leaving her with two small children. She later married Tawfik Kiemas, whose rags-to-riches story gives critics ammunition to cry corruption.

When Megawati gained more prominence, Suharto only bolstered her popularity by dismissing her from her party's leadership in 1996. Subsequent riots led to student protests that eventually toppled Suharto in 1998.

Wahid, a man Megawati once considered an ally and friend, seems to have grown equally suspicious of the woman whom followers began to consider a sort of "mother of the nation." He was appointed president by parliament in 1999, although Megawati's party had gained the most votes. That loss makes many say that she's not adept at political intrigue. But her defenders say Indonesia needs someone who can unite them, not a rocket scientist.

"A leader does not have to be smart," says Abe Komaruddin, a politician in the Golkar party, who led the parliamentary drive last year to begin questioning Wahid for alleged corruption. "The mark of a good leader is one who understands the people he or she is leading, and not asking the people to understand the leader, as Wahid does."

Military's role

Although the military has vowed to extract itself from politics, it could arguably give this country's most important political endorsement. And the fact that generals appear to lean toward Megawati is being used by both camps. Wahid's people are spreading the word that if Megawati becomes president, she will become a puppet of the military, a "pushover," in the words of one Western diplomat here, possibly leading to a return to martial law. Her supporters say that only Megawati will give a freer hand to the military to take a tough stance against militant secessionist groups around the country. Wahid and his autonomy proposals, they argue, will allow the country to disintegrate into chaos.

Hari Sabarno, the head of the 38-seat military faction in parliament, says that the armed forces will try to stay neutral, but there's a preference for Megawati if only for purely pragmatic reasons. Wahid, who is virtually blind, cannot read their reports, and coupled with his sometimes erratic behavior, has been difficult to reach. "It doesn't matter who we interact with," says Sabarno, "but in reality it's easier to interact with Megawati because she can see the reports."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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