A reluctant would-be president


Indonesia: With votes from the June 7 election still being counted, Megawati Sukarnoputri seems likely to become this country's next leader -- if she decides she wants the job.

June 19, 1999|By Mark McDonald | Mark McDonald,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Her friends say she doesn't want to be the next president of Indonesia.

They say she'd rather cook her favorite Javanese dishes and arrange flowers, that she's a reluctant leader who got into politics -- at age 40 -- only at the urging of her overly ambitious third husband. They say she rarely talks about politics, hates speech-making and often feels as if she's channeling the ghost of her father, Sukarno, the nation's founding president.

Nevertheless, Megawati Sukarnoputri, 52, appears to be the presidential heiress-apparent as her Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle strengthens its lead in the June 7 parliamentary election.

"She's calm, never nervous, not emotional at all," says Sri Harsono, a longtime friend who opened a Jakarta flower shop with her 20 years ago. "She has positive and negative aspects, like anyone else, but she's a good housewife. She can do anything. But she told me she doesn't really want to be president."

The presidency -- which the new parliament will fill in the fall -- could well be hers for the taking. In the protracted vote counting, Megawati's party, known by the acronym PDI-P, has had about twice as many votes counted so far as its closest competitor.

Rarely speaks in public

As the counting has proceeded at a laborious pace, Megawati has barely been visible -- just as during the campaign. Surprisingly little is known about the would-be leader of the fourth-most-populous country in the world and the nation with the most Muslims. She refuses interviews and rarely speaks in public. Her campaign speeches were filled with homilies and platitudes, and she ended many rallies by leading the crowd in a children's song.

For the record, Megawati has pledged to keep Indonesia together, echoing her father's nationalist principles, which would mean taking a hard line against separatist sentiments in Aceh and other restive provinces. She has pledged to follow an international plan for economic recovery, while hinting she would favor a fixed value for the national currency, the rupiah. And she has made it clear that she wants Indonesia to remain secular.

For millions of religious Indonesians, however, only a man will do. Tuesday, the leaders of the United Development Party, which was polling 12 percent of the vote, stated that they could support only a male Muslim for president.

Many have suggested that Megawati's silences have been the best thing for her image, that she's politically naive, she has no platform, no vision, no depth. (This is, after all, a woman who is said to have watched the movie "Beauty and the Beast" 50 times.)

"Intellectually she's not a heavyweight, to say the least," says Jusuf Wanandi, perhaps the nation's best-known political scientist. "As a member of parliament, she was medium."

Wanandi, who worked with Sukarno and is a friend of Megawati's, acknowledges that she is roundly and rightly criticized for her lack of public support for the student uprising that brought down Suharto in May 1998. But in a woman who is often described as matronly, dull and dour, Wanandi sees a special gift:

"She has a charisma she got from her dad. Megawati's incredible with crowds. At a rally here in Jakarta, the crowd was 200,000, very rowdy as usual, and she told them to be silent and sit down. And they did! I've never seen anyone else able to do that -- except her father."

Much of the public's enthusiasm for her comes from the linkage to her father. She was a doting daughter, her friend Harsono says, and she particularly cared for him after Suharto ousted him in 1965. After its eviction from the plush presidential palace, the Sukarno clan was forced into much bleaker surroundings. Megawati left college, where she was studying agriculture.

"Because of Suharto she couldn't finish," Harsono says. "No children of Sukarno were allowed to go to university. They had no money, no educations, no jobs. The family was so poor then."

When Megawati married an Indonesian air force pilot, her deposed father had to ask Suharto's permission to attend the wedding. Sukarno died in 1970, and friends say his death sent Megawati into a depression.

Then, another death: Megawati had given birth to two boys and was pregnant with her daughter, Harsono says, when her husband's plane went down in the early 1970s.

Megawati's second marriage is something of a family secret, according to Harsono. "It lasted just one day," he says. "One day she was married, the next day divorced. She said she was hypnotized. I have never asked her any more about it."

Her third husband, Taufiq Kiemas, runs a chain of six gas stations that are said to be well-located in the Chinatown area of Jakarta. They live in a comfortable, well-fenced and well-guarded house on Kebagusan Street in south Jakarta. The relatively modest house is surrounded by lush gardens, and the Mercedes and the four-wheel-drive Pajero are kept in back. Inside the house are two large portraits of Sukarno.

A jealous husband

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