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With friends like Haz, Megawati doesn't need enemies

Asia Times - July 28, 2001

Kanis Dursin, Jakarta – The unreserved support of new President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) for the vice presidential bid of Hamzah Haz, chairperson of the Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP), came as a surprise to many.

The PPP, one of the political parties belonging to the so-called Axis Group, humiliated Megawati, whose PDI-P won the 1999 general elections with 153 legislators in the House of Representatives (DPR), in the presidential election later that year by blocking her bid on the ground of her gender. "Being an Islamic political party, PPP cannot support a woman to become president," Haz used to say then.

Now, however, Haz has become vice president because of the votes of PDI-P, which has a total of 185 members in the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), the country's highest legislative body that elects and/or removes a president and/or vice president. In the third and final round of the vice presidential election on July 26, Megawati personally instructed PDI-P legislators to vote for Haz. And as it turned out, the votes of PDI-P made Haz's vice presidential dream come true. Haz garnered a total of 340 of 610 votes up for grab, compared to 237 votes for Akbar Tandjung of Golkar, Hamzah Haz's toughest rival.

Being the president of a country where almost 90 percent of its 213 million population adheres to Islam, Megawati is faced with a harsh reality: She must cooperate with her enemies or lose the presidency. As expected, Megawati has chosen to embrace her enemies rather than take revenge.

The decision to support Haz's vice presidential bid was a matter of political survival for Megawati and her party. Although her ascent to the presidency was supported by virtually all factions in the MPR, her legitimacy was still considered weak as many Muslim groups cannot accept a woman president. Had she not decided to support Haz, her presidency would have come under constant attack by Muslim groups, severely undermining her government.

The legitimacy and increased acceptance by Muslim groups which Haz's election brings to Megawati is extremely important if she wants to run for the post in the 2004 presidential election. Had Megawati and her PDI-P supported Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung or former coordinating minister for politics, social and security affairs Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono, her administration would look like a neo-New Order one, with the consequence of being an easy target for protests by students and pro-democracy activists.

"This is the most rational choice that PDI-P can make. Had we supported Golkar, pro-democracy activists and students would name the administration as the neo-New Order," PDI-P Deputy Secretary-General Pramono Anung said after Haz's election.

The Megawati-Haz duet, however, is expected to face a tough challenge in the DPR as Golkar, and probably former president Abdurrahman Wahid's National Awakening Party (PKB), have vowed to take a critical stance against the new government. Golkar has 120 legislators in the DPR, and a Megawati-Tandjung duet would have created a solid government as it would bring together 273 legislators, more than half the DPR's 500 members. PDI-P legislators were worried, however, that Tandjung's presence in the government would weaken Megawati's position.

By throwing her support behind Haz, Megawati also dispelled an opinion widely-held among Muslim groups that a nationalist like herself cannot get along with a "fundamentalist" Muslim like Haz, who has constantly rejected a woman president and called for the adoption of Syariah Islam (Islamic law) in Indonesia. According to PDI-P legislator Soetardjo Soerjogoeritno, to secure the vice presidential post Haz agreed not to bring up the gender and Syariah issues.

Haz's election is expected to minimize the damage caused by the removal of Wahid by MPR members on July 23. Haz is a member of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a Muslim organization closely associated with Wahid. Being an NU member, Haz has close relationships with influential NU ulemas (religious leaders), whom Wahid consulted before his downfall.

However, the election of Haz also confirms suggestions that politicians in the MPR and DPR were more interested in grabbing power from Wahid and distributing it among themselves, rather than creating a clean and accountable government. Virtually all parties that plotted to overthrow Wahid now hold key positions both in the executive and legislative branches. PDI-P's Megawati becomes president, PPP's Haz vice president, while PAN's Amien Rais and Golkar's Akbar Tandjung still keep their previous positions as MPR and DPR speakers respectively. The same parties are now busy scrambling for Cabinet posts. Megawati has hinted that there will be 34 ministerial posts, compared to Wahid's 27. Ministries that Wahid scrapped earlier are to be revived in order to accommodate the demands of the parties for Cabinet posts.

The parties now have the positions, but have no common ground on how to lift the country out of its current crisis.

But still, Megawati's post is not secure. A fatwa – religious teaching - rejecting a woman president has not been revoked. The fatwa was issued by Muslim leaders weeks before the 1999 presidential election, and the Muslim-based political parties, including PPP, that called for the fatwa have no plans to invalidate it. Megawati will always have to count on her "enemies" to preserve her presidency until 2004.