|Megawati – Is She the One to Solve Indonesia’s Mega Problems?
The Nation – August 9, 2001
The rise of a woman Muslim leader in a fourth Muslim country, Indonesia, reflects the enormous changes taking place in the Muslim world as it enters the twenty first century.
The role of Islamic women is changing as more women leaders break glass ceilings to assume power for themselves. In so doing, they empower other women in other professions to break free of the prejudices of the past and compete for respect in their own right. They also send a powerful message of repudiation to those propagating a return to the past.
The rise of a woman leader as president in Indonesia contrasts sharply with the Taliban treatment of women in Afghanistan. The two contrasting images mirror the debate in the larger Muslim world where one billion Muslims stand at the crossroads. They choose between the oppression of women preached by the Taliban and the order of equal rights preached by the rest.
As the Muslim world churns between the challenges of modernity and the political crisis in the Middle East, East Asia dictates its own pattern of politics.
The rise of two East Asian women vice presidents in the wake of disgraced, elected presidents, is significant. It heralds an
untraditional model of change in countries with a bitter history of military rule.
Elected presidents facing corruption allegations found power slipping from their hands. The key role in the power play came from the pillars of past dictatorships: the military and the police. Affected by the public outcry, the powerful institutions of state tilted towards the vice presidents. They defied the orders of the president and enabled the constitutional change to take place.
The changes in Indonesia and the Philippines indicate the social shifting of power. Increasingly, well organised groups and the media emerge as key political determinators. In both countries, the well organised anti president groups effectively delivered messages paralysing presidents. Both presidents fumbled in convincingly replying to corruption allegations amidst public outrage.
That outrage ultimately affected the allegiance of state functionaries.
Indonesia’s Megawati and Philippines Arroyo share other similarities too. Both hail from political families and grew amidst political debate. They benefit from old networks of political allegiance to powerful males in their families. Certainly, Megawati’s rise vindicates her Father, President Sukarno.
The charismatic, popular and nationalistic founding Father of the Indonesian islands was overthrown in a 1965 military coup d’etat. A blood bath followed. So many were killed that the rivers filled up with dead, bloated bodies. Megawati’s family dropped from the pinnacle of power becoming political outcasts.
Megawati showed determination in defying a dictatorship which stitched parliament and stifled opposition. She heroically carried on her Father’s legacy finally capturing the public imagination with her struggle. Following the elections that brought President Wahid to power, some thought Megawati was outmanoeuvred by the wily Wahid, that she let the prized presidency slip from her hands. But events turned full cycle when Megawati became the constitutional rallying point for disgruntled political groups encouraged by Wahid’s inability to meet modern demands of government.
Her road to the pinnacle of power was a rocky one. The military dictator succeeded in ousting her from the chairmanship of the Indonesian Democratic Party in 1996 and banned her from contesting elections that year. But Megawati, with the poor and the faithful supporting her, launched the Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party. Her standing grew and her party swept the polls winning the largest number of parliamentary seats three years later. Now General Suharto was the prisoner, and she the vice president.
With President Wahid’s fall, Megawati’s biggest challenge is the office of the Presidency itself. The road ahead will test her abilities as political manager and leader. The mystique of the great Sukarno name favours her, although she also inherits her Father’s political foes. Her most serious challenge is meeting the economic expectations of the poverty stricken masses who supported her as the Indonesian economy nose-dived. They need job opportunities and inflation stabilisation to prevent fervour turning into disillusionment.
Indonesia is similar to Pakistan in that its powerful military undermined the democratic aspirations of its people. It is unlikely that the cornered General Suharto will give up that easily particularly since his family is endangered. He may appear weak and ill, but his family ruled for thirty decades putting down roots of its own. His long tenure retarded the growth of other political institutions that underpin democratic rule. Therein lies the trap-door of the Megawati presidency presenting the new leader with a formidable challenge.
Multi- ethic countries coddled by the Cold War face similar challenges from Europe’s Yugoslavia to Asia’s Pakistan and Indonesia. Militant and armed groups challenge national cohesion. Pent up parochial sentiments push for expression against a collapse of political systems and end of economic assistance. One party systems in over centralised military dictatorships suppressed ethnic diversity while institutionalising discrimination. Now the chickens come home to roost as alienated ethnic groups jostle for more political space.
First Indonesia grappled with East Timor. Now the Aceh separatists are raising their voices. Borneo, Papua and West Timor are other areas where Indonesia’s national fabric could strain. The new president needs all her skills to stop Indonesia’s slide into anarchy and balkanisation.
While Megawati may be an untried and untested leader, she has the backing of Indonesia’s powerful army–atleast for the present. The people and parliament support her too. The territorial integrity of her country–and its democratic aspirations– rest on the shoulders of a lady brought up in tumult and turmoil. Her serenity in the face of storms could give Indonesia the stability it seeks.
Indonesia’s first female president wrote history in becoming President. Now she shapes history as its new leader.