The Gus Dur-Megawati leadership – Pluses


Assuming the mantle of leadership is their first step. How will the Gus Dur-Megawati combination play out? The Straits Times weighs the pluses and minuses of this unique partnership.


JAVANESE mysticism binds President Abdurrahman Wahid and his newly-elected running mate Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Their trip to Blitar and Jombang in East Java a week before the presidential election is symbolic in this respect.

They visited the graves of their fathers to get guidance as they entered unchartered political waters together.

While the voices they heard would not have been able to predict the last 48 hours’ events, especially the close presidential contest between the two, it showed they both shared a deep conviction in ancient Javanese ways.

It is unclear whether spiritual belief will continue to hold the two politicians together as they form a partnership in government.

But more to the point: underneath that mystical shell are two friends and allies who are not too far off from each other in the ideological spectrum. It will serve them well in the new government.

Both represent the nationalist and benign face of an Indonesia vanishing gradually under the social and political force of Islam.

Being principal opposition figures during the New Order regime, Mr Abdurrahman and Ms Megawati have on several occasions clung together in their fight against Mr Suharto and his backers.

When the military stormed the then PDI headquarters in 1996, for example, the Islamic scholar was one of the leading figures to come to the defence of her party.

There are several other instances of ententes between the two, who were pivotal in applying pressure on Mr Suharto and his successor B.J. Habibie. But the common thread linking their concerns was a sense of frustration – that there was little change despite all the rhetoric of one.

This perhaps explains their public popularity in the prevailing political climate.

Heading parties – the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) and the Nation Awakening Party (PKB) – that emerged first and third in the June general election, they form an unassailable popular and legitimate government and the political antidote against mass unrest.

Common cultural and political perspectives between the two leaders have somewhat percolated downwards, though the intensity of grassroots links is not as strong.

Mr Abdurrahman’s 30-million-strong Nadhlatul Ulama (NU) and Ms Megawati’s party have been working together for nearly two decades. Both parties complement each other. The PDI-P appears stronger in the professional portfolios like the economy and banking, and is expected to be more adept at handling issues like corruption and legal reform.

The PKB, NU’s political arm, would offer expertise in vital social and religious issues. Cabinet posts are likely to be equitably distributed, given the spread of talent.

As a result of a history of working together, President Abdurrahman and Ms Megawati are unlikely to face major problems in running the country. On the surface, they present a united front.

Power will be shared, giving the new Vice-President unprecedented influence over policy issues.

The partially-blind Muslim cleric reportedly told his running mate before she became Vice-President that his role in the country would be largely symbolic.

She would be expected to play the role of manager and occasionally take the lead in Cabinet deliberations.

Mr Abdurrahman’s decision to allow this stems from two reasons, sources said.

For one, he was constrained by his ailing health. He suffered a stroke earlier this year that left him frail and weak to handle the day-to-day running of the NU. He had also undergone eye surgery in the United States recently.

The President’s aim to “liberalise” decision-making in government was also to dismantle the New Order power structure that was too centralised.

Said a senior PDI-P official: “The President wants to change things. In his conversation with Ibu Mega, he made it clear to her that he did not want the vice-presidency to be nothing but a rubber stamp as in the Suharto era.

“He would want her to play a much more active role than previous Vice-Presidents. He prefers to remain a symbol of unity in Indonesia.”

But the appointment of Cabinet members would be the President’s prerogative, as would be the passing of national decrees – with Ms Megawati’s inputs of course.

The wily politician’s game plan for now appears to be to give his running mate the necessary breathing space to manage a modern and complex administration.

If he were to step down anytime within the next five years, the hope is that Ms Megawati would be prepared to take over power.

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