Indonesian democracy faces next test

Megawati Sukarnoputri was named president yesterday after ouster of Abdurrahman Wahid.

Indonesia yesterday passed what many consider the test of a true democracy: a relatively peaceful transition of power.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, who had been serving as Indonesia's vice president, took over as president of the world's fourth-largest nation. Abdurrahman Wahid, who was the country's first freely elected leader, was ousted by the Indonesian parliament for alleged corruption.

But Megawati takes the helm at a time when Indonesia's democratic institutions are still embryonic. And despite her widespread popularity, analysts here are concerned that the nation will be taken in a more authoritarian direction under the leadership of this political neophyte.

Megawati's popular support stems largely from her pedigree her father, Sukarno, was the country's founding president. She, however, has so far shown a disinclination for political compromises that are the currency of any fractious political system. -

And while her inheritance includes an economy in tatters and a country that lurches between bouts of communal violence and political disintegration, Megawati's first big challenge is likely to do be what to do about the ousted Wahid, who has declared his removal from office unconstitutional - and refuses to leave the presidential palace.

Megawati, who has remained virtually mum about her political ambitions since Indonesian legislators began to censure Wahid last year for his alleged roll in two corruption scandals, accepted the position after a unanimous vote yesterday in the country's legislature. Wearing a white and purple traditional Indonesian batik garb, as a Koran was held above her head, the woman that Muslim political parties had once deemed not Islamic enough to lead this nation was sworn in as the country's fifth president.

"I call on all parties to accept this democratic process ... this is the voice of the people which we must uphold," said Megawati.

"Let us build our country together," she said. "Let us erase all the fights among us which have only prolonged people's sufferings."

Some here think that Megawati's rise to power will be read as a green light for the military to take a stiffer hand toward separatist movements that have threatened to break apart the patchwork nation her father pieced together in 1945. As a nationalist who has remained tight-lipped about her opinions on how the government should be run, some here are unsure of how dedicated to democracy President Megawati will be.

"I think the pendulum swings more to the conservative side of the map, and that civil society movements will have a harder time vis-`a-vis the government than they had before," says Babang Harymurti, the editor of Tempo, a leading Indonesian weekly magazine.

Adds Harold Crouch, executive director of the International Crisis Group's Indonesia program: "We're very much in the dark about what her government will be like. What we do know is that she doesn't have a strong grasp of the specifics, so will rely on her cabinet appointees to make policy."

Indeed, while average people express a certain affection for a Megawati who has taken on the persona of a judicious, matronly figure who can lay down the law in Indonesia's unruly house, power elites speak of her with a certain condescension. Anyone will be better than Wahid, they argue, but Megawati doesn't have a college education, shuns political maneuvering, and has not shown that she has a firm grasp on how to solve Indonesia's myriad political and economic problems.

Policy, it seems, will depend largely on who she brings into her cabinet. It is not clear, for example, whether her economic advisers will be free-marketeers, or nationalists, who will view control of the economy as part of Indonesia's interest.

"Her success depends on the team around her," says Harymurti, the editor. "If she can somehow lower the public expectation to a more manageable level, it would help a great deal.

Investors, at least, showed optimism that Indonesia's downward spiral may finally be halted. The country has 8 million unemployed people, a public debt that is the same size as its GDP, and rocky relations with key lenders like the International Monetary Fund. Yesterday, however, the rupiah, the country's currency, rallied against the dollar, and stocks gained 2 percent for the first time in months.

"The economy has been getting worse and worse, and we can see specific costs when our political situation is unstable," says Pande Silalahi, an economist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. "The worry is still there. I don't think Megawati understands the economy deeply, so I hope she will delegate it to the professionals," he says.

Still, many observers are concerned that what may be good for the economy and Indonesian territorial integrity - separatists have been battling national forces from Irian Jaya in the east to Aceh in the west - may not be so good for the country that only overthrew the nation's last long-reigning dictator, Suharto, three years ago.

In the words of one Jakarta-based diplomat, "Megawati is going to be much better for Indonesia ... but from the standpoint of human rights and freedom, she's going to be a big step back."

Others say that given the authoritarian political past she represents, it is unclear whether Indonesians are as concerned with democratization as they are with better social and economic stability.

"What Megawati will face is intense pressure to perform, to deliver on all fronts," says Donald Emmerson, a political scientist at Stanford University. "Whether she is capable of doing that ... is a big question. What is remarkable is that we have not had a coup, a blatant seizure of radio, an announcement of a junta." he adds.

But given that Indonesians are looking at the third leader to take power since toppling Suharto three years ago, some may prefer a stronger central government to the wide sense of uncertainty and instability.

"We're on a road, potentially to nowhere," says Mr. Emmerson, "where no government can be expected to last long enough to tackle serious problems."

Dan Murphy contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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