Megawati's reluctance to concede threatens legacy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 October, 2004, 12:00am

Regardless of the recent election outcome, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri was bound to go down in the history books as the leader who did more than any other to consolidate democracy in the country. This would have been a great accomplishment, and a surprising development for a country that has only recently emerged from decades of strongman rule under Suharto and his Golkar party.

In this year alone, Indonesia saw three of the most complicated and successful elections taking place anywhere. First came the April elections, which gave 147 million voters the chance to choose from 450,000 candidates at national, regional and local levels. Six hundred million ballot papers were distributed to 585,000 polling places. The July presidential election and September runoff involved similar voter numbers and logistical challenges, in addition to being the country's first direct presidential poll. The violence that some expected to accompany the elections did not materialise, and all the signs indicate they were fair and open.

The praise that came Ms Megawati's way for overseeing all of this was well-deserved, but perhaps a little premature. Her democratic legacy will be judged as much by the smooth elections as by what she chooses to do next.

It has been days since the independent electoral commission declared Ms Megawati's challenger, Susilo Bambang Yohdhyono, the winner by a margin of 25 million votes. Ms Megawati has all but conceded defeat, with her latest statements referring neither to herself nor Dr Susilo, only to the need for respecting poll results. The lack of an outright admission of defeat will not derail Dr Susilo's swearing in on October 20, but it does mean that he will become president under a cloud. He is unwilling to make a victory speech until Ms Megawati concedes. Will a man who will not declare victory also hesitate to name a cabinet? It is a question that should not have to be contemplated but does come up as long as the concession remains unexpressed.

One issue still under consideration by the Megawati camp is whether to lodge any complaints about the vote. Nothing so far would indicate that, even if they were substantiated, alleged polling problems would do anything to close the margin between the two candidates.

Dr Susilo, having won by a landslide, will come into office with a mandate to make changes. Tackling corruption and terrorism and fixing the economy were the main points of his platform. Ms Megawati offered a more reticent style but the very same agenda. These are big challenges that are better tackled while Dr Susilo still has the momentum of the poll behind him. Now that the independent election commission has declared him the winner, Ms Megawati gains very little by delaying. She does, however, jeopardise Dr Susilo's chances of success in these areas - and her legacy as well.