Megawati: The Princess Who Settled for the Presidency

  • Share
  • Read Later

Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri

Megawati Sukarnoputri loves fairytales.

Last Sunday night, on the eve of her dramatic triumph in a bitter power struggle for the Indonesian presidency, she was to be found not huddling with advisers, but watching the animated movie "Shrek." By all accounts Megawati has always imagined herself less a politician than a princess — the daughter of an overthrown king who would one day oust the usurper, reclaim her father's throne and save the nation.

The return to power of Indonesia's founding family may mark a fairytale moment in her country's history, a moment shrouded in powerful mythology by many of her long-suffering compatriots. But there was little public celebration. Few Indonesians really expect a storybook conclusion to their national travails.

The history

Indonesia matters, and Indonesia is a mess. Measured by population, it is the world's fourth largest country, and a decade ago it would have been counted among Asia's most important economies. Spanning the oceans from Thailand to Australia, the 14,000-island archipelago serves as a kind of geopolitical tollgate to the Pacific. The Japanese occupied it in World War II, and its strategic significance was underlined in the early 1960s when it became the theater of perhaps the bloodiest-ever proxy war between China and the United States.

Megawati's father, President Sukarno, who had steered the nation to independence in 1945, was overthrown in a bloody coup in 1965. The new dictator, Suharto, was viewed by Washington as the indispensable strategic counterweight to Chinese ambitions in Asia. Today, three years after Suharto's ouster, the fate of Indonesia may be even more critical for a U.S. administration that envisages long-term strategic competition with China.

But Indonesia, at the moment, is in critical condition. The nation has never recovered from the financial crisis that precipitated the overthrow of Suharto, much less from the resulting political turmoil that has produced three presidents in three years. Hanging over all is the fear that the entire country might descend into a violent disintegration similar to the bloodbath that accompanied East Timor's independence. Separatist rebellions in Aceh and Irian Jaya and inter-communal violence in the Moluccas and elsewhere show that the patchwork of ethnic enclaves that became a nation-state only by dint of their common colonization by the Dutch is now threatening to fall apart.

Princess to the rescue

Megawati may see herself as the nation's reluctant savior. The 54-year-old matriarch was pressed into politics at age 40 by opponents of the dictatorship who hoped to use the Sukarno mythology to rally support. And it worked. In 1999, when Indonesians had their first opportunity to vote for a successor to the ousted Suharto, Megawati won a plurality of the vote. And that despite the fact that she has few visible talents as a politician. She seldom speaks in public and rarely discusses anything approximating policy; and the fact that she allowed herself to be outmaneuvered for the presidency by Abdurrahman Wahid despite her election victory spoke to what many commentators see as an epic political ineptitude. But she had the Sukarno name, and the potent mystique it acquired in the Suharto years, and an abiding sense of entitlement that supporters see as explaining her reluctance to engage in politicking. But many observers suspect that she just may not be up to the cut and thrust of the backroom power-brokering that continues to define politics in Jakarta.

Still, Megawati's presidency is a product of that very backroom intrigue she shuns. Her family may have been ousted from power by Suharto, but it remained part of Jakarta's fractious political and economic elite. The very same coalition of forces that united to keep her out of the top job after the 1999 election have now united to elevate her. Little is known of her political thinking beyond a broad echo of her father's nationalism. It's a nationalism strongly supported by the military, a nationalism that doesn't easily tolerate federalism or secession, which suggests she'll authorize a harsh response to the troubles in the provinces. On the economy, she remains a blank slate: She'll commit to the IMF's ideas about how Indonesia's economy should be reformed, but it's not yet clear whether she'll challenge the interests of the elite by cleaning up the banking system and putting an end to corruption.

And will she live happily ever after?

Of course those may seem like minor details to a princess restoring her father's throne — the sort of messy things one hires a prime minister to take care of. She sees for herself the more lofty role of "Mother Mega," soothing and caring for Indonesians who feel abandoned by the state. Millions of Indonesians have looked to her in precisely those terms. Now that she is their president, the Sukarno mythology won't be enough — her political survival now will depend on political skills she has not yet revealed.

And her destiny may be not unlike the end of "Shrek" where the true test of love comes when the newly restored princess is revealed to be plain and uninspiring.