A Nation's Fate in a Housewife's Hands

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow and director of Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

In the end, the only surprise--and a great relief here--was how smoothly and orderly it went.

For a while, Indonesian politics seemed a cross between a Marx Brothers movie and a soap opera. Erratic, sharp-tongued President Abdurrahman Wahid, under pressure to step down, slung insults at critics and threatened to, then did declare martial law and disband parliament. The military and police ignored his orders. Irate lawmakers finally censured him, then unanimously impeached him. But Wahid refused to leave the presidential palace. Fortunately for Indonesia's fledgling democracy, Wahid finally relented, and Megawati Sukarnoputri was peacefully and constitutionally installed as his successor.

So much for the easy part. Henceforth, Indonesia--and the world--will have to lower their expectations as the new administration confronts the country's enormous problems, ranging from secessionist provinces and communal violence to massive debt and an economy in tatters. Add to that the inevitable political wrangling that will accompany Megawati's efforts to form a cabinet and consolidate power.

Indonesia, the world's fourth-largest country and largest Islamic nation, is trying to simultaneously reinvent its political culture from scratch, reconcile its past and restore national unity even as it struggles to pick up the pieces of an economy ravaged by 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. Wahid's political ineptitude was less the result of the petty corruption charges the legislature dwelled on in pushing for his impeachment than his inability to manage these larger forces.

Megawati, perhaps the nation's most popular politician, is an unlikely savior, though. She recently told an interviewer that, "It appears that I am considered to be a housewife .... What's wrong with that?"

Such comments recall the Philippines' political crisis in 1985-86. Then, Corazon Aquino, widow of an assassinated popular opposition leader, was derided as a housewife, but captured the nation's imagination and led the famous "people power" demonstrations that rid the country of dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Like Aquino, Megawati's appeal owes much to the magic of her lineage. Her father, Sukarno, was the founding president of Indonesia and a charismatic Third World populist. He is still widely revered. It was no coincidence that Megawati's first public act as president was to fly to Sukarno's grave in East Java.

Because the reserved Megawati rarely gives speeches or interviews, little is known of her views. Her modest political party, the PDI-P (the Indonesian acronym for Democratic Party-Struggle) gained prominence when former President Suharto, who helped oust her father in a bloody 1965 coup, tried to isolate her. As did Aquino, she became an important symbol of resistance and liked to be called the "mother of the nation." Still, Megawati has surrounded herself with a coterie of leading technocrats and well-regarded economists. She is said to be a good listener and to know what she doesn't know, a rare quality among politicians.

Aquino proved to be a transition figure in Filipino politics. It was her successor, Fidel V. Ramos, that moved the Philippines down the road to recovery. In Indonesia, however, the problems are so deep-seated that many there--and not least, U.S. officials--would be thrilled if, in carrying out the remaining 27 months of Wahid's term, Megawati emerges as a transitional figure able to hold the country together and bring about a measure of political stability.

But even that limited goal will require more political skill than she has demonstrated so far. Megawati needs to form a coalition government that includes such ambitious politicians as Amien Rais, the speaker of the parliament and leader of an Islamic Party, and Golkar, the recycled version of Suharto's former ruling party. Her success at mobilizing parliamentary support to gain the presidency (the legislature is directly elected and, in turn, chooses the president) suggests that Megawati was paying attention when she was No.2.

Controlling Indonesia's still powerful military, which strongly backed Megawati, will be a more formidable challenge for the new president. An early test of her skill will be the secessionist movements in gas-rich Aceh and mineral-rich Irian Jaya. Will she, as many fear, give the army a free hand in quashing the Aceh rebellion, in which 900 have already died? Or will she balance military operations with new political arrangements granting more autonomy?

For the United States, as well as for the rest of Southeast Asia, there is a lot at stake in Indonesia. It is a major oil and gas exporter and sits astride sealanes through which nearly half the world's trade passes daily. Politically, Jakarta has been the center of gravity in Southeast Asia and natural leader of the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a key regional partner of the U.S. The fate of Indonesia's secular democracy, moreover, will have a large effect on democratization in the region and beyond. Failure could spark a return to authoritarian rule and give impetus to a regional trend of political Islam.

Still, given the depth of Jakarta's problems, the U.S. and Indonesia's neighbors may only be able to help Indonesia at the margins. At best, Megawati's presidency, rich in historic irony, promises to be a small, but hopeful sign that Indonesia may stabilize enough to allow democracy to deepen its roots in a key Muslim country.

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