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Woman in the news: Indonesia's daughter of destiny

New York Times - July 23, 2001

Seth Mydans, Jakarta – When she was still something of a neophyte six years ago, Megawati Sukarnoputri spoke with wonder about the hard work of politics. The most difficult thing to learn, she said, was patience.

"It's only human that I have ups and downs," she said then. "I've had to train myself to remain clear and detached in the face of problems."

It is a surprising statement to read in retrospect. As every Indonesian now knows, patience is Mrs. Megawati's trademark. Patience, as one ardent follower said, is her shining quality. It is patience, after years of abuse and disdain at the hands of powerful men, that has finally won her the presidency.

Mrs. Megawati, 54, was elected today by Indonesia's Parliament to succeed Abdurrahman Wahid, whom she served as vice president for 21 months and whose offhand insults about the quality of her intelligence she suffered in stoic silence.

The daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, she appears to have felt that it was her destiny eventually to inherit his mantle. But she remained detached from the fray, speaking rarely and shunning political gatherings.

Her passivity and sense of entitlement lost her the presidency in October 1999. As the leader of the dominant political party, she disdained compromise and deal making, only to be outmaneuvered by Mr. Wahid. She maintained her low profile as vice president, acting as neither ally nor opponent of Mr. Wahid. As the challenges to him grew sharper, her silences appeared increasingly statesmanlike.

"The political stalemate between groups and elites has reached a level of concern," she said in a rare speech earlier this month. "Everybody seems to use their own logic, while boundaries between democracy and anarchy seem to blur. We have to find ways to manage the current transitional process so it will not be the end of the nation."

Now that the transition has arrived, the question is the extent to which Mrs. Megawati is her own person and how much she is being used as a vehicle for political ambitions of all stripes.

Her presidency has been promoted by roughly the same coalition that blocked it in 1999. For her supporters, some analysts say, she is a convenient vehicle to power; her opponents hope she might be an easy target in advance of the next presidential election in 2004.

Though she is a Muslim, her moderate views and the fact that she is a woman have aroused opposition among some Islamic political parties.

Mrs. Megawati is an almost entirely symbolic leader – as the bearer of the Sukarno name and as a representative victim of the abuses of former President Suharto, who resigned under pressure three years ago. When Mr. Suharto used violence to engineer her ouster as leader of a weak political party in 1996, he effectively made her a rallying figure for his opponents and set the stage for her presidential campaign.

Though she opposed Mr. Suharto, political analysts say, her beliefs and policies might not represent a radical change from the past. On the contrary, they could spell a weakening of the post-Suharto reforms that Mr. Wahid championed but undermined by his aggressiveness and disorganization. Most analysts expect that her administration will at least bring a degree of calm and stability after the erratic and impulsive tenure of Mr. Wahid.

Members of Parliament vowed to give her an easier ride than they gave her predecessor. But a number of public interest groups, who were among Mr. Wahid's last supporters, fear that her conservatism and her closeness to the military establishment could lead to a tightening of government control and an erosion of liberties.

As Mr. Sukarno's daughter, she seems to have set unity and preservation of the nation he founded as her priorities. She is expected to allow the armed forces to crack down hard on separatist movements, and she has spoken against an emerging policy of regional autonomy.

In a Megawati administration, human rights groups say, the strong current of reform that has freed the press and given free rein to public interest groups could begin to erode.

As a member of the conservative political establishment, she may slow the government's faltering moves to disenfranchise the corrupt elite that flourished under Mr. Suharto. Her administration is not expected to pursue vigorously the minimal steps that have been taken to call the military to account for past abuses, like the ruin of East Timor in 1999.

She appears to have assembled a strong economic team, although some of her advisers hold competing philosophies that still have to be reconciled. In general, her administration is expected to accept the dominance of the International Monetary Fund, which has poured billions of dollars into Indonesia since its economic collapse in 1997 in return for its commitment to establish rigorous economic policies.

With corruption one of the country's hot political issues, doubts have been raised over Mrs. Megawati's husband, Taufiq Kiemas, a wealthy businessman who is a powerful force in her party and who has been accused of shady deals and influence peddling.

Two years ago he played down his influence over his wife, telling an interviewer: "I'm her husband but I can't push her around. If you try to pressure her she fights back." He added, "If she were a political idiot I wouldn't have married her."

Opinions differ on that question. Not long ago, Benedict Anderson, an expert on Indonesia at Cornell University, dismissed her as "Miniwati." In a rare television interview last month, Mrs. Megawati herself addressed the issue. "It appears that I am considered to be a housewife," she said. "I say to those people who belittle housewives: What's wrong with that? It does not mean a housewife does not understand politics."

Mrs. Megawati was born on January 23, 1947, to Fatmawati, one of Mr. Sukarno's several wives, and her full given name is Dyah Permata Megawati Setiawati Sukarnoputri. The name Megawati roughly translates as Woman of the Clouds.

Mr. Kiemas is her third husband. The first, an air force officer, died in a crash. The second was an Egyptian diplomat. She has three children from her first marriage.

She entered politics only in 1993 as a member of Parliament in one of the two ineffectual opposition parties permitted by Mr. Suharto. Power brokers felt that a member of the Sukarno clan would carry political muscle; Mrs. Megawati was the last choice after her brothers and sisters declined the opportunity.