U-turn of a reformist

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 April, 2009, 12:00am

In 1998, when Indonesian strongman Suharto was forced to step down by a wave of street protests, few would have predicted that Megawati Sukarnoputri, one of the leaders of the reform movement, would 11 years later seek power in a coalition with former senior members of that same regime.

But a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, and the trajectory of this 'reluctant' politician has been such that analysts believe that the seemingly unlikely coalition is actually logical.

Tommi Legowo, an activist from the Forum of Citizens Concerned about the Indonesian Legislature said: 'sadly, in politics, there are no friends or enemies but only interests. And this trio have the common goal of beating [President Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono.'

Besides former president Ms Megawati, the trio is made up of Wiranto, the leader of the Hanura party, and Prabowo Subianto, who heads Gerindra.

During the last days of the Suharto regime, while Ms Megawati was calling for democratic reforms, Wiranto was the head of the military, which kept Suharto in power, while Prabowo, Suharto's son-in-law, was the head of the special forces unit. Both politicians' military careers have been tarnished by accusations of human rights abuses and reciprocal animosity. Wiranto still faces criminal charges.

The three are now likely to join forces in an attempt to thwart Dr Susilo re-election bid in the July presidential vote. Ms Megawati is expected to be the opposing presidential candidate, while the two former generals are still jostling for a position.

The possibility of a coalition was announced last weekend by the chairman of the advisory board of Ms Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Taufik Kiemas, also her husband.

The announcement followed the April 9 parliamentary election that saw Dr Susilo's Democratic Party win by a large margin, according to early results. Estimates say that his party secured more than 20 per cent of the vote, while Ms Megawati's PDI-P trailed third with 14.5 per cent. Gerindra and Hanura followed in eighth and ninth place.

So what do the three unlikely bedfellows have in common?

'Political coalitions are always about power and the strengthening of this power, and they tend not to enter the reign of ideology,' said Jacqueline Hicks, a Jakarta-based political analyst. 'But these three parties share some ideological traits, like the ideal of Indonesia as an immovable, unitary state.'

To varying degrees, the three parties also share a political-economic view that favours the 'little' people, like farmers and fishermen, and limits foreign ownership of Indonesian assets.

Ms Megawati ascended to the presidency in 2001 after the impeachment of her predecessor, Abdurrahman Wahid.

But if as opposition leader Ms Megawati was seen as being on the side of the poor, pro-democracy and pro-human rights, as president, she disappointed by leading no specific anti-poverty drive, expressing uneasiness with public votes in parliament and doing nothing to curb corruption. She was also accused of being aloof and out of touch, and she eventually failed to be re-elected, losing against Dr Susilo in 2004.

According to some experts, however, her biggest blunder was in her relationship with the military.

Observers largely agree that military reform stagnated and eventually regressed during her term. Marcus Mietzner, the leading expert on the military, said: 'Megawati's strategic concessions to the [military] coincided with significant shifts in the ideological and political disposition of large segments of the civilian elite from the second half of 2001 onward.'

In his book The Politics of Military Reform in Post-Suharto Indonesia: Elite Conflict, Nationalism, and Institutional Resistance, Dr Mietzner did not dispute that Ms Megawati snuggled up to the military for her own political advantage, but he stressed that this was partly due to 'the remarkable renaissance of nationalist-conservative sentiments in the country', which strengthened the military's status.

This development was aided by the widespread sectarian conflicts that erupted in the archipelago - the growing call for independence in Aceh and Papua and the American-led 'war on terror' that followed the September 11 attacks.

Although during Ms Megawati's last few days in office when parliament passed a law that greatly diminished the institutionalised political reach of the military, some of the president's supporters said that her leadership had disappointed.

Adnan Tripradipta, a Jakarta-based consultant, said that it often seemed like 'some of her decisions are actually made by her husband, Taufik Kiemas', a view shared by many in Indonesia.

Mr Taufik is Ms Megawati's third husband. The first, Lieutenant Surindo Supjarso, was killed in a plane crash in 1970. Her second marriage, to Hassan Gamal Ahmad Hasan, an Egyptian diplomat, was annulled shortly after it was officiated in 1972.

Indra Samego, a political analyst from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, said Ms Megawati's problem might be a result of mismatched expectations. People expected a lot from her, but she was just not able relate to them. 'She never considered herself one of the people. She always considered herself superior, and this kind of mentality hurts democracy,' he said.

Ms Megawati, in fact, has always seen herself as the nation's reluctant saviour, rather than someone who needs to vie for the approval of the people.

As the daughter of former president Sukarno, she grew up in luxury in the Merdeka Palace, far from the poverty that afflicted large swathes of her country. She dropped out of university twice and never held a proper job outside politics. She was propelled into the political limelight almost by default when she was 40 and those opposing Suharto thought that her father's legacy would draw crowds.

That was in 1987, and until then she had enjoyed a quiet, married life, tending to her three children and her garden.

But the opposition was galvanised when she came on board and Ms Megawati soon became a symbol of popular resistance.

Her status grew in 1996, when Suharto tried to remove her as the leader of her party.

The standoff came to a head on July 27 of the same year, when the military attacked the party's headquarters to eject the occupiers. The attack left five dead, 23 missing and 149 more injured.

This event was widely seen as marking the beginning of the end of power for Suharto, with the level of protests against his iron-fisted rule growing exponentially.

After his fall in May 1998, Ms Megawati took part in the 1999 parliamentary elections, the first free elections held. PDI-P came first, gaining a whopping 33 per cent of the vote. She was obviously the Indonesian people's choice for the presidency, but parliament, which elected the nation's presidents until the 2004 poll, favoured Mr Wahid, and Ms Megawati consequently became his vice-president.

When she eventually replaced Mr Wahid, she became the country's first female president and the first Indonesian leader born since independence from the Dutch.

In 2004, before she lost the election to Dr Susilo, she was ranked No 8 on Forbes Magazine's list of the World's 100 Most Powerful Women. By last year, she had fallen off the list. Experts believe she will struggle to be included again.