Indonesia's New Leader: High Hopes, Low Expectations

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Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri and Vice President Hamzah Haz Indonesia has completed another tumultuous transfer of power, but how much will really change now that Megawati Sukarnoputri has replaced Abdurrahman Wahid as president?

Tim McGirk: The first effect of the change will be that it will end, at least for now, the war between the president and parliament, which had completely paralyzed the working of government. Wahid went through four justice ministers and four attorneys general in the past four months. Nothing was getting done.

Also, I think what we'll see with Megawati is that she believes more strongly in nationalism than in federalism, which was what Wahid was advocating. Wahid, in his own feeble way, was restraining the army from going in to the breakaway provinces and and committing the sorts of human rights abuses we saw last year in East Timor. I think Megawati is going to give the army a free rein to go in and crush the separatist uprisings in Aceh and Irian Jaya.

What then are the prospects for bringing an end to the rolling crisis that has gripped the country since the overthrow of Suharto four years ago?

A lot depends on what sort of a cabinet she chooses. If she goes with the professionals who know what it takes to get the economy back into gear, that will be encouraging. What will be incredibly discouraging will be if she starts appointing the cronies of her businessman husband in key economic positions. It's too early to tell which way she's going to go. It's a positive sign that she has a vice president from one of the Muslim parties, who are seen as a counterbalance to the nationalist element in Indonesian politics. Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population, and having a Muslim vice president is helpful because many of the Islamic parties had previously opposed her on the grounds that a woman should not be leader of a Muslim country.

The most remarkable feature of her ascent is the fact that the same coalition that united to stop her taking the presidency after she received the most votes in the last election has now decided to back her. Is she being set up to fail by rivals who will challenge her at the next election?

Nobody is sure whether the current coalition arrangement will work for Megawati. Conflicts could break out almost immediately when some of the parties that joined her in pulling down Wahid don't get the plum cabinet jobs they had hoped for.

The two main challengers to Megawati at the next election will be the Golkar party and Amien Rais's smaller Muslim party. They would certainly want to let Megawati dangle, and make the mistakes that will make it easier for them to challenge her at the polls.

Presumably after East Timor, there will be a higher level of international scrutiny of Indonesia's responses to separatist movements, and pressure for restraint. At the same time, Indonesia desperately needs economic assistance from the West. Could there be a tension between her economic objectives and her nationalist objectives?

Perhaps. But the main reason the IMF is withholding the latest tranche of its $600 million aid package is because of concern over the stability of government. There had been no sign that Wahid was cleaning up the banking system or government corruption. But no one is all that certain that Megawati will embark on such a cleanup either.

Is Megawati part of the established political and economic elites?

Very much so. So was Wahid, of course, but Megawati is much more so. In fact, people say she doesn't want to be president; she wants to be queen. She thinks it's her birthright to rule as the daughter of the father of modern Indonesia, but she doesn't want to concern herself with the messy responsibilities that come with power.

Watching Indonesian politics, it's hard to avoid the sense that it's largely about the backroom intrigues among factions of the elite, while ordinary people watch from the sidelines, and are rolled on- and offstage by those elites as an extension of their backroom maneuverings. How are ordinary Indonesians perceiving the latest change?

Indeed, the system has become so evolved that there are well-established rent-a-mob organizers with laminated price lists. It's somewhere in the region of $2 a demonstrator per hour, more if there are banners. And if you want them for more than three hours, you have to provide lunch.

It's interesting that there have been no demonstrations either for or against Megawati so far. Unlike the time when Suharto was overthrown, people now look at it as the usual shadow puppet game of the elite moving around and exchanging cabinet posts. For ordinary people, they see that Wahid didn't work, and now they'll try Megawati. But without any conviction that things will be any better.