What Makes Megawati Run

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TERRY McCARTHY JakartaShe was a housewife. He was a dictator. Yet Megawati Sukarnoputri was the one person in Indonesia Suharto feared. To the superstitious Javanese leader, she represented the ghost of her father Sukarno, whom Suharto overthrew in 1966. He tried to exorcise her. She grew stronger. Now, as Indonesia adds up the votes in its first free election in 44 years, Megawati has come back to dance on Suharto's political grave.

After three decades of Suharto's iron-fisted rule, during which his children and their cronies got rich at the expense of the majority, Indonesia's 200 million people are demanding a fairer deal. By adroitly wrapping herself in the banner of the downtrodden, Megawati the housewife has defied her critics and come to symbolize the demands of the oppressed. At week's end, Megawati's Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) was projected to win a plurality, though not a majority, of the vote. That puts her in a strong position to succeed B.J. Habibie, Suharto's hand-picked successor, when an expanded parliament convenes later this year to select a new president. From the standpoint of Javanese culture, Megawati is the Queen of Justice, says Josef Kristiadi of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. Someone who will right the wrongs of the past.

Before this year, few thought the 52-year-old mother of three who grew up in the presidential palace had either the strength or the determination to emerge as the queen of the reform movement. Widely regarded as aloof and devoid of ideas, Megawati had been dismissed as an ephemeral shade of her charismatic father, trading on little more than her famous name. Only recently have her detractors begun to sense something more durable and determined beneath the palace-princess façade. Megawati doesn't say much, but she rarely makes wrong judgments, says Wimar Witoelar, a prominent TV talk-show host. She is like a big sister or a mother--somebody you can trust.

Although she entered politics in 1987 as a PDI party candidate, she had limited grasp of policy, was uneasy in public meetings and showed no appetite for confronting Suharto. She might never have done so--if he had kept his superstitious fears bottled up. In June 1996 Suharto manipulated a PDI party congress in Medan to remove her as chairwoman--even though she posed no direct threat to him in the rigged elections he staged every five years. When her supporters protested and occupied the party headquarters, he sent in thugs to remove them forcibly. Five people died in the ensuing riots. It was one of Suharto's rare misjudgments. Having deftly sidelined all other threats to his one-man rule, he had finally created an enemy he had no defense against, a figure with whom all the other victims of his regime could identify. Like Ferdinand Marcos' Cory Aquino, Suharto had engineered his own nemesis. To Megawati's advisers, it was a gift from heaven. The idea was to promote martyrdom, explains Laksamana Sukardi, a close Megawati adviser. We were faced with a psychopathic regime--if you confront it frontally, you can't win. So her advisers pushed her to operate on a different level: she became a symbol of Suharto's oppression. The more the President raged against her, the stronger she became.

The bloody events of 1996 also showed a new side of Megawati, an inner strength few knew she possessed. Don't waste your tears, she told an aide who came to her sobbing after witnessing the beatings of her party members that July afternoon. We are going to fight for our rights, and tears will get us nowhere. About that time she cut her hair short, and has kept it that way ever since. Before, she was motherly, says Subagio Anam, a businessman and aide to Megawati. She became tougher. Says Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a former environment minister and now informal adviser to the Megawati camp: Her biggest achievement was getting her party to survive the repression of '96. It is the source of her support, because she stood up for her rights. In the face of Suharto's attack, many of Megawati's friends advised her to compromise. But she refused and announced she would sue, which she did, over and over again, in every courthouse that would accept her complaint. It was a Gandhian tactic, and Suharto could do little in response.

In total Megawati filed some 230 cases in courts around the country challenging her removal from the PDI leadership. Only seven verdicts went in her favor, says Laksamana, but each case gave her a political stage, and no one could stop her supporters from attending the court hearings. It was a case of 'even if I lose, I win,' he says. She won people's hearts, if not the verdicts.

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Having generated a groundswell of popular backing, she nearly dropped the ball last year, failing to come out in support of the student-led movement to topple Suharto. Traumatized by the kidnapping a month earlier of Haryanto Taslam, one of her advisers, she retreated into solitude, unprepared for a leadership role in such a rapidly changing and physically threatening situation. Haryanto was released weeks later. But at the height of demonstrations in May 1998, a television crew ambushed her in a mall: she was forced to concede, sheepishly, that she was just going shopping. Only as the election campaign got under way this year and people sought an alternative to the electoral muscle of Suharto's Golkar did she regain momentum as the people's choice.

Despite aligning herself with the suffering of the little people, Megawati is certainly not one of them. Born Jan. 23, 1947 in Jogjakarta to Sukarno's second wife, Fatmawati, she was brought to the presidential palace in Jakarta two years later and spent her childhood and teenage years cocooned in First Family privilege. We called the compound the 'palace village,' she recalls. All the drivers and gardeners lived there, and I played with their children. It didn't seem anything special.

But it was the palace, it was special and Megawati got used to life there. She stayed behind with her nanny even when Sukarno took his third wife, Hartini, and Fatmawati left. Charming if unpredictable, Sukarno was adored by his children. We had our father all to ourselves during breakfast and lunch every day, says Guruh Sukarnoputra, Megawati's youngest brother. At those precious times, he would ask each of us to tell him about our day at school. Sukarno discussed more serious things with Megawati and her elder brother Guntur, as he thought they were old enough to understand. Sukarno called her Gadis (girl) and brought her along on overseas trips. Her aide Subagio remembers a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade, at which the 14-year-old Megawati was complaining loudly that Vienna's Blue Danube was in fact a very dark brown.

When Suharto toppled Sukarno, life became difficult for all of his eight children. They were socially ostracized, and Megawati was forced to leave Bandung's Pajajaran University before finishing her agricultural science degree. Ill fortune continued: when she was pregnant with her second son, her husband Surendro, an air force pilot, disappeared in action in Biak, Irian Jaya. His body was never recovered, and even today Megawati gets misty-eyed when she talks of him. She then eloped with an Egyptian businessman, Hassan Gamal Ahmad Hassan, but the marriage lasted only a few months. She now lives in a modest south Jakarta house with her third husband, Taufik Kiemas, who runs a chain of gas stations.

Free of any taint of corruption, Megawati lives a simple life, in sharp contrast to the flamboyance of Suharto's family. A recent dinner with her advisers consisted of fried rice followed by ice cream, hardly haute cuisine. In private she is gracious but distant, speaking slowly in neutral tones with little inflection. She is gentle and motherly. She loves plants and animals, says her former nanny Eyang Citro, 75. That affection extends to her infamous black mongrel Bentol, who snarls at visitors and has bitten at least one journalist on the hand.

On the campaign trail before the June 7 vote, Megawati showed little emotion and faltered at the political art of self-projection. When getting off a helicopter or plane, instead of waving confidently to the crowd, she would invariably look down at her feet, or at the stairs she was about to descend. The crowds would go wild anyway. In between her short appearances--she rarely spoke for more than 10 minutes--she would nap on the plane, or read a little. Her aides did not bother her with frequent briefings or poll updates; they were transporting an icon for the crowds to admire, not a policy vehicle for people to take issue with. She campaigned as if she already had the mandate to lead.

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She may have a Brahman's sense of entitlement, but she is also powered by a slow-burning rage against Suharto's bullying--of herself, her family and the entire nation. On a flight to a campaign stop in Sumatra last month, Noviantika Nasution, a member of PDI-P's central committee, began talking about political repression under Suharto's rule. Megawati turned away to look out of the plane window, but, Nasution recalls, her words were clear: I swear, there will never be anything like that again in Indonesia. Never.

What Indonesia would be like under her leadership is unclear. When asked about her vision for the future, she replies mostly in vague terms about the people regaining their dignity. With so much heterogeneous support, it has been wise of her to remain fuzzy about issues, explains Sarwono.

In a country where the political balance swings not between conservatives and liberals but between stability and chaos, Megawati is in fact a cautious reformer. She has come out against the August independence referendum for East Timor, which she fears could encourage secession movements elsewhere in Indonesia. In an interview she said: I don't like radical change--that creates problems. Although she insists Suharto and his children should be investigated for ill-gotten gains and dismisses Habibie as an extension of Suharto, she knows how incendiary the message of revenge can be in her country: 500,000 died in the aftermath of her father's removal.

Should her party do well enough in the elections that she eventually becomes president, her most pressing task will be to fix the economy. Megawati says she favors an open, market economy with a reliable system of justice. I emphasize the legal system, she has said. What concerns investors is the lack of legal certainty. And support from investors, especially foreign ones, will be crucial in the struggle to restore confidence in the battered economy. One friend in high places is U.S. President Bill Clinton, whom she first met on a tour of rice-growing Arkansas in the mid-'80s. The two seemed to detect shared political aspirations and kept in touch. Megawati was an official guest at Clinton's 1993 inauguration. At home she has reached out to the relatively wealthy Chinese community: in a key meeting in February with a large group of ethnic Chinese businessmen, she won over her listeners by saying, I was heavily discriminated against, you say you are heavily discriminated against--we recognize each other.

Megawati's political success will depend largely on the people she chooses to advise her. While an élite team of technocrats fills her inner court, a host of opportunists and sycophants are fluttering closer as her chances of victory increase. There is concern that her husband's businessmen friends might try to influence her. There is also a brewing controversy over the allegedly large number of Christians selected as candidates for her party, an issue Muslim groups have already begun to exploit in order to weaken her appeal. But she still commands loyalty from those who hope to move beyond the religious-secular divide and the other internal conflicts that threaten Indonesia. I believe in her, says adviser Theo Syafie, a former commandant of the Armed Forces Staff College in Bandung. She carries her father's faith in a nation-state that should never allow primordial sentiments based on religion or ethnicity to pull it apart.

Indonesians are expecting nothing short of a miracle from the next government. With Megawati viewed by many as a savior, adviser Laksamana warns that expectation levels are high and the honeymoon period will be short. The euphoria of the election campaign could quickly evaporate as hard issues like unemployment, bank rescues and regional autonomy demands flare up. The next president is sure to be challenged from every side.

The housewife who would be queen feels at home in circumspection--a Javanese trait she shares with Suharto. For me, silence is a political act, she says. But the time to get vocal is approaching. The martyr strategy may have brought her to the threshold of power, but Megawati will need to find her own political voice if she wants to return to the palace where, after three decades, she still feels she belongs.

With reporting by David Liebhold and Zamira Loebis/Bangkok

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