Chief in the making

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 July, 1999, 12:00am

One of the biggest criticisms against Indonesian opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri has been her refusal to set out her stance on key policies. Now she has moved to address this deficiency by delivering a keynote address, her first since last month's elections. Some have described it as vague, arrogant or contradictory. But this is not fair.

Most international reports focused on her claim to enjoy the moral mandate to govern since her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle had won more seats than any other in the parliamentary polls. She even demanded that the present government consult her over all major decisions.

Such headline-grabbing gestures are hardly what Indonesia needs right now. Nor is there any prospect of them making much headway. President Bacharuddin Habibie yesterday rejected any idea of performing a mere caretaker role.

But this should not detract from the many more positive aspects to Ms Megawati's speech. By finally outlining her policies, she has, for the first time, given some clear idea of how she would act if she won the presidency she so clearly covets.

Of particular importance were her promises to honour existing commitments. Ms Megawati does not like the decision to hold a referendum on East Timor's future. But, by pledging nonetheless to abide by its result, she has now removed the major uncertainty hanging over the August 30 plebiscite.

Her rejection of demands for the immediate removal of the military from Indonesian politics falls into the same category. Whatever the merits of this, the major opposition leaders agreed a gradual phasing-out process with the army last year. As Ms Megawati said, if she is to be a leader who honours her promises she can hardly now repudiate this.

She also gave a clear signal of liberal instincts. This was evident from her call for a halt to deliberations on a new bill giving sweeping emergency powers to the security forces which has been condemned as far too draconian.

None of this necessarily means Ms Megawati will become president. That remains to be decided by a constitutional process in which she does not command a majority. But it does mean that she has, for the first time, provided cause to believe that she may make a good president for Indonesia.