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Megawati puts cabinet choices on hold

South China Morning Post - July 28, 2001

Reuters in Jakarta – New President Megawati Sukarnoputri left Jakarta yesterday for the provinces, putting the critical task of forming a coalition cabinet on hold and reinforcing perceptions that she will not be a hands-on leader.

Since being appointed President on Monday, Ms Megawati has offered little vision for ruling the fractious archipelago and has given no clues on who might form a cabinet that faces the massive task of dragging Indonesia out of crisis.

"The cabinet will be announced next week," Bambang Kesowo, a senior aide to Ms Megawati, said. Officials from Ms Megawati's party also said the Government could be named early next week.

Following the appointment on Thursday of Vice-President Hamzah Haz, a Muslim party leader who brings vital religious support to Ms Megawati, Indonesia's power-hungry political parties are now circling for ministerial seats.

Ms Megawati is attending various functions in West Java and parts of Sulawesi, in the country's east, before returning to Jakarta today. She went to East Java on Wednesday to visit the grave of her father, Indonesia's founding president Sukarno.

Officials from her party were quoted in local media yesterday as saying the cabinet would reflect all parties in Parliament apart from key economic posts, comments that will please financial markets.

"The ministerial posts that relate to the economy will be given to professionals, because economic recovery will be the priority of the Government," the deputy secretary-general of Ms Megawati 's Indonesia Democratic Party-Struggle, Pramono Anung, told the Jakarta Post. The party is Parliament's largest, but lacks a majority.

Having gained power, Ms Megawati faces a crop of headaches ranging from separatist and communal violence in Indonesia's outer reaches to reviving the banking sector and convincing investors that the country is still a good place to make money."We are already back at square one," Laksamana Sukardi, a strong contender for a top economics post in the cabinet, told local television. "We have been at the bottom of a ravine for such a long time, there is no such word as not succeeding. We have to succeed."

Separatists in Irian Jaya province have welcomed Ms Megawati's appointment, but warned her not to seek a military solution to the remote and resource-rich territory. Ms Megawati has previously made clear the archipelago can only have one political master.

Ms Megawati will also need to tackle a judiciary riddled with corruption and influence-peddling. In a reminder of that mess, a gunman on Thursday shot dead the judge who last year sentenced Hutomo "Tommy" Mandala Putra – son of former president Suharto – to jail for graft.

Ms Megawati's accession follows a remarkably peaceful transition that claimed no lives but left the reputation of her sacked predecessor, Abdurrahman Wahid, in tatters.

On Thursday, US President George W. Bush telephoned Ms Megawati and congratulated her on the peaceful transfer of power and stressed US commitment to help Indonesia.

Mr Wahid flew out of Jakarta on Thursday for medical checks in the United States after disputing his dismissal by the top legislative assembly. Analysts have largely welcomed the appointment of a Muslim party leader as Ms Megawati's deputy, saying his religious credentials would underpin her nationalistic, secular views. But the Jakarta Post raised concerns about Mr Hamzah role in helping block Ms Megawati's bid for leadership of the world's most populous Muslim nation in 1999 because she was a woman.

"The question that now begs to be asked is whether his present turn-around merely constitutes a political tactic that, in time, will prove to be detrimental to Megawati's presidency," the newspaper said in an editorial.

Ms Megawati has clearly revelled in becoming Indonesia's fifth president and following in the footsteps of her father. But along that road, she has shown a dislike of the political rough and tumble and maintained her preference for silence on sensitive topics, unlike the garrulous Mr Wahid – who frequently infuriated politicians with his erratic statements.

To some Indonesians, her style marks a welcome change and could lead to more stable policymaking and the creation of fewer political enemies.

Mr Wahid's departure also brings to an end a Friday institution in Jakarta – his midday appearance at a mosque to pray with worshippers when he almost always uttered something controversial for the hordes of media squeezed in.