In a power shift that guarantees intrigue and internal drama in coming weeks, Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri is preparing to become half of what might be called Indonesia's "incredible two-headed presidency." Mother figure for the masses, daughter of former strongman Sukarno, and winner of the popular vote in last year's first free elections, the question now is: What kind of leader will she be?
On Wednesday, under pressure from the nation's highest legislative body, struggling President Abdurrahman Wahid said he would hand over "day-to-day" government functions of the world's fourth-largest country to Mrs. Megawati. In the new arrangement, Mr. Wahid will handle foreign policy matters and be a symbol of moral righteousness - while Megawati takes on the domestic portfolio and conducts Cabinet meetings.
But it is as yet unclear how far her authority will go. Promono Anung, deputy secretary-general of Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), says that the vice president must be allowed to choose a new Cabinet, and would require a letter from Wahid spelling out her new powers. "She must also be responsible for the military, in order to solve the Moluccas and other problems," says Mr. Anung.
Megawati gives few interviews and is surprisingly unknown for someone so popular, but she is well regarded for stands protesting injustice, violence, and for demands that actions be taken legally.
Still, the actual policies of the PDI-P are conservative and nationalist, opposed to discussions of federal-style regional autonomy that have arisen in Indonesia, and Megawati is considered soft on efforts to reform the still-powerful military. She has not played an active role in investigations of human rights abuses and corruption. In her parliamentary days, Megawati was a silent back-bencher. As vice president, given the crucial job of handling the Moluccas' ethnic and religious strife and the secessionist struggles in Aceh and Irian Jaya, she has been widely seen as ineffective. In her visit to Papua, as Irian is locally known, for example, she did not meet any pro-independence leaders.
Megawati, whose last name means "daughter of Sukarno," first gained real visibility in 1996. As her popularity rose through nostalgia for her father's regime, his successor, Suharto, dismissed her from the leadership of one of three parties then allowed.
In a famous July 27 event, her supporters holed themselves up at party headquarters and refused to leave. This led to riots - and eventually fueled the student protests that toppled Suharto in 1998.
Today, the criticism most often pinned on Megawati is a tactical deficiency in political matters. Last year, riding high after the PDI-P was the top vote getter in parliamentary elections, Megawati could not form a ruling coalition. "She didn't lay out a vision for Indonesia as a candidate, or as a vice president," says one American head of a Jakarta think tank. "All I've seen her doing in public is cutting cakes and ribbons."
A "dual presidency" of shared powers is a far cry from the stable leadership that Wahid, a nearly blind Muslim cleric widely regarded as a transitional figure, hoped to bring to his country. It is also a striking departure for a country that until a few years ago was ruled by authoritarian leaders whose imprimatur often played on a mystical aura that approached a "divine right of kings."
Just how a dual presidency will function is a matter of some bemusement, if not perplexity, here. Currently, Wahid is surrounded by key secretaries for state, military, and economic portfolios. Whether those men will de facto report to Megawati is an open question. Constitutionally, only Wahid is supposed to handle military issues, but Megawati will have to move into that daily management as well - if Wahid is serious about his new proposal.
Also unclear is how Megawati's power will be spelled out. Wahid can cede authority to Megawati through a presidential decree, which is in keeping with the traditional style of politics. (Sukarno eventually handed over power to Suharto by decree.) Yet whether he will spell out a job description for her is undecided.
A new and diffuse power-sharing approach may also move Indonesia further away from the long- term reforms that are considered necessary for stability.
"This is borrowed power and borrowed power is inherently unstable," says a Western diplomat on condition of anonymity.
The president and his deputy have had their differences. Yet in recent weeks, Megawati has said she could not mount a "hostile takeover" against someone she considers an ally.
Many Indonesians think the question of authority will be messy for months. "There are a lot of twists and turns before Wahid actually hands power over," says a local reporter. "I'm waiting for some surprises."
Wahid, a compromise presidential choice last year whose party came in fourth in the popular vote, is a figure of both exasperation and reverence among Indonesians. His "zig-zag" style and tendency to fall asleep in meetings led to persistent talk of impeachment in the 700-member People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) session, which began Monday. To ward off his ouster, Wahid planned to cede power to a new "first minister" - but Megawati's backers pushed her for the job.
Last year when Megawati won the popular election, Golkar, the old flagship party of Suharto, was divided over whether to support her, and did not. Wahid, whose party came in fourth and holds just 10 percent of the parliamentary seats, was a compromise candidate.
Now, a year later, it appears that Golkar party leader Akbar Tanjung is willing to back Sukarno's daughter. A leading theory in a tropical city of swirling theories is that Megawati will be forced to play close-up, hardball politics in coming months, and will fail. That, according to the theory, would set up a victory scenario for Golkar and the former military and bureaucratic establishment.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society