By now, after three dramatic years and four presidents, Indonesia should be easy for many people to find on a map. For decades, this archipelago nation with the world's fourth-largest population had been a shadowy presence in Asia.
But the election Monday of a quiet and queenly woman, Megawati Sukarnoputri, as president should put Indonesia on the map for everyone. As the daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, Mrs. Megawati's ascent to power represents the best hope yet that this unwieldy former Dutch colony, spread across some 17,000 islands, can be a model for other nations. Here's how:
1. The obvious model will be in having a woman as leader, a rarity in Asia. Megawati was rejected as president in 1999 by a coalition of Muslim political parties, largely because she was not a man. Since then, they've seen the light. She now follows women leaders in India and the Philippines in showing other Asians that women can be natural politicians.
2. Her election by the supreme legislative body, and the impeachment of Islamic cleric Abdurrahman Wahid as president, helps show that democracy can flourish in a Muslim nation. (Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country.)
3. The impeachment of Mr. Wahid showed that leaders in Indonesia can now be held legally accountable for their actions (or inactions). His erratic and incompetent rule was not good enough for a nation of 210 million people in desperate need of political unity and a strong hand on the economic tiller.
4. If she chooses a competent cabinet of mainly nonpoliticians, Megawati has the opportunity to return Indonesia to its geopolitical role as a bulwark against China's expansion of power in the region and as guardian of Southeast Asia's vital sea lanes. Indonesia was once the kingpin of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but political turmoil and the 1997-98 economic crisis have diminished that pivotal role among ASEAN's 10 member states.
5. Having seen how the military ousted her father in 1965-66 (and later defied Wahid), she knows better than anyone how to delicately implement the principle of civilian supremacy in a nation whose military long has played a strong political role. The military has started to reform itself since the 1998 ouster of President Suharto, but Megawati now has the chance to finish the job.
As Megawati returns to the presidential palace where she lived as a girl, she must balance a desire for stability with a desire for democracy. Her abilities in resolving the tension between the two are untested. Foreign nations such as the US can do much to support her. But her patience and calmness in waiting to be president indicate that she's off to a good start.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor