'Mother Mega' leaves fans cold

Indonesia's top assembly begins its annual meeting Thursday. Friday, Powell is expected to stop in Jakarta.

Pius Lustrilanang says he's bled his last drop for President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

In 1998, as Indonesia's Suharto dictatorship fought to restrain the democracy movement Megawati had inspired, Mr. Lustrilanang was snatched off a Jakarta street and taken to a dank military interrogation center. His crime: leading a pro-Megawati student group.

Lustrilanang was beaten, given electric shocks, and held down in tubs of icy water until he almost drowned, then peppered with questions about the political organization behind the matronly future president. He says he survived by holding on to his dream of a Megawati presidency. "She was going to break up the old, corrupt system."

But today, a year after Megawati gained power, he calls his earlier expectations naive. "Megawati hasn't shown any commitment to stamping out corruption or establishing the rule of law," says the democracy activist. "She abandoned us."

All signs are that Megawati has stabilized the world's largest Muslim country four years after the US and others worried it was close to lurching badly out of control. This week, Megawati is expected to sail through the annual meeting of its highest legislative body. It met last year amid threats of riots and ended in the ouster of her mercurial predecessor, Abdurrahman Wahid. Later this week, US Secretary of State Colin Powell will pass through here on his tour of Asia and is expected to praise Megawati's cooperation in the war on terror. Washington, meanwhile, is considering reestablishing military ties with Indonesia.

Yet the calm that "Mother Mega" has brought to Indonesian politics belies the fact that the expectations for sweeping change haven't been met.

If Megawati the outsider was seen as a vigorous advocate for the poor, a believer in fast-track democratization, and a critic of the military's poor human rights record, Megawati the president has not led any antipoverty drives, has expressed unease with public votes in parliament, and has ordered troops to "carry out your duties ... without having to worry about human rights abuses."

Public rage at corrupt officials seethes just below the surface, and Megawati's failure to make a dent in poverty is costing her core support. The daughter of Indonesia's charismatic first President, Sukarno, has backed away from prosecutions of public officials and businessmen accused of stealing billions, and allowed the Army to regain some of the political clout it had lost. Nor has she moved to replace judges, despite a recent survey that ranked Indonesia's judiciary the most corrupt in Asia.

Perhaps worse, for the president's previously fervent supporters, is Megawati's recipe for stability: accommodating many of the politicians and generals who served Suharto.

"This is a reflection of Megawati's deep conservatism: She wants to hold on to what Suharto built rather than change it,'' says Jeffrey Winters, an Indonesia expert at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Political analysts offer two explanations for her go-slow approach to political change. One is expediency: It has helped her co-opt potential enemies. But equally important is the nonconfrontational style of this shy, almost introverted national leader.

"Megawati doesn't like to make waves,'' says her occasional adviser Rizal Mallarengeng, a political scientist. "She's not the type to use the presidency as a bully pulpit."

Of all the things that have disappointed supporters, none have been as symbolic of the divide between early expectations and Megawati's actual leadership as her insistence that the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) support retired General Sutiyoso as governor of Jakarta. Sutiyoso is a Suharto-era holdover who was Jakarta's military commander when Megawati's then-opposition headquarters was overrun by soldiers in 1996. The government-backed attack not only left some 40 party members dead, but also galvanized national support for Megawati.

Megawati has cozied up to old enemies elsewhere, aligning her PDI-P with Golkar, Suharto's party. Recently, she ordered PDI-P leaders in the house to block a corruption investigation of Golkar chairman, Akbar Tandjung. Two Suharto-era generals are also among her closest advisors.

"We thought Mega was with the little people, but look at all the fat cats that are close to her now,'' says Bomo Sutarno, who earns $3 a day selling fried rice from a battered street cart. "She's letting them off the hook while a lot of people are still hungry."

There have been some successes. The economy may grow as much as 4 percent this year after stagnating or shrinking during the last four. After initial reservations that Indonesia wasn't 'politically mature' enough, Megawati has thrown her weight behind a constitutional amendment allowing for direct presidential elections. Her ministers have improved relations with the IMF, and she has deftly played on US concerns that Indonesia could become a terrorist haven to win more aid.

But even Mr. Mallarengeng says she may not have what it takes to grapple with the problems that still face this archipelago. 'She's good at being a symbol, but she's not so good at being a leader of the government.'' he says. 'Leadership wasn't something she ever prepared herself for.''

Observers say strong leadership is something Indonesia needs badly. From Sumatra in the west to Papua in the east, the Indonesian archipelago consists of roughly 15,000 islands that stretch as far as London to Baghdad. Along that length more than 100 languages are spoken.

Suharto's rule was highly centralized. When he fell, he released three decades of anger, fueling communal violence, demands for less national interference in provincial affairs, and separatism in Aceh and Papua.

Mr. Winters predicts Indonesia's current stability will prove fleeting in the absence of vigorous political and economic reform. "The picture is one of steady, slow decline."

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