She has proved she can paint a town red, but can Megawati Sukarnoputri run the world's fourth-largest nation?
Scarlet flags and banners are reminders of the Indonesian Democratic Party congress held last weekend by Mrs. Megawati, daughter of Indonesia's first president and the leading candidate for presidential elections next year. Wearing the color of nationalism, more than 100,000 supporters roamed the streets shouting "I love Mega," "Mega for president," and "Mega, Queen of Justice," a reference to a Javanese messiah expected to rescue her people one day.
The nicknames illustrate Megawati's huge popularity among Indonesians, who revere her as a champion of the underclass but most of all as her father's daughter. She is one of a host of women in Asia who have taken on the charisma of late fathers and husbands and risen in politics.
But Megawati has yet to prove she can do much more than that. Asked to name anything in her platform that could distinguish her party from 80-odd others that have registered to date, Megawati looks puzzled. Like most parties, hers calls for free elections, freedom of expression, an open market, and more money for education.
"The PDI [Indonesian Democratic Party] is an open party, we accept anyone who wants to become a member," she says. "We don't ask where they are from, what their religion is." Pressed for specifics, she looks up for help from any assistant, but they are still having breakfast in an adjoining room.
"Intellectually, she is sort of Reaganesque," says one diplomat in Jakarta. "She has some principles that lead her way, and she sticks to them stubbornly. What she needs, like Reagan had, is a good team."
Megawati evades most questions, much in the way she ran the party congress. The members never got to vote on the party program and happily gave her the authority to appoint the party's executive board. "Ibu [mother] Mega knows best," delegates said.
The congress reminded some of the lack of democracy under President Suharto and Megawati's father, Mr. Sukarno, who turned Parliament into a rubber stamp and introduced "Guided Democracy" in 1957.
Megawati insists her congress was democratic. "Before, they just engineered the participants, just picked them," she explains. Mr. Suharto founded the PDI in 1973 by forcing five parties to merge and deciding its leader. Party members rebelled in 1993 and picked Megawati. "This is the first time the participants are picked by the grass roots, in meeting after meeting," she adds. "If everybody then says yes, yes, yes, it is also democracy. We don't engineer it."
Although Sukarno's combination of nationalism and communism brought war and ruin to Indonesia in 1965, Megawati insists he did not make a single mistake. Many Indonesians revere Megawati's father as much as she does. But many intellectuals say he was not unlike his successor, Suharto, who is now widely denounced. "Her father was an authoritarian," says Ahmad Syafiil Maarif, a Muslim from a rival party. "Megawati does not have any clear ideas about politics. She has never become herself."
Megawati has revealed one character trait that should give skeptics hope. She managed to keep her party united throughout the congress without making compromises that would scare away supporters. She re-appointed the board and added a few, rather than dismiss people who represented powerful factions. And she ignored lobbying by friends of her husband, a controversial figure in the party.
"It's hard to think of a candidate other than Megawati who would have the potential to unify the country," one Western diplomat says. "She has no real enemies. She can ask the people to sacrifice and be patient. Without her, this place would be in trouble."