Why Mega cracked the whip at Akbar

Despite the threat of Golkar’s wrath, the President’s credibility in fighting graft could not take another beating.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri has burnished her credentials by ordering the arrest of Parliamentary Speaker Akbar Tandjung.

But the detention of the Golkar heavyweight, and possibly others in his party, threatens to tear apart the coalition government with two of the largest parties in the country pitted against each other.

The signs are ominous.

Golkar, which was instrumental in Ms Megawati’s rise to power last July, is now talking openly about pulling out of her Cabinet and initiating a ‘national boycott’ of the government.

Given the attendant risks of cracking the whip against Golkar, why did the 54-year-old leader go for the jugular? To be sure, she had two choices in dealing with the Speaker who stands accused for misusing 40 billion rupiah (S$8 million) when he was State Secretary in 1999.

A senior official from Ms Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) disclosed that the first – and easiest option – was for her to let him off the hook.

This would ensure continued support for her party and government until 2004 from the Golkar leader.

One should not underestimate the soft-spoken Mr Akbar, who has donned the Javanese mask of inscrutability in the political arena and brought down the last two administrations.

But the limits of this choice far outweighed its advantages.

PDI-P sources said that there was concern that the President’s credibility would take another beating – even more so now given the reservoir of animosity against Golkar for 30 years of corruption.

Ms Megawati, for all her talk of eradicating graft in Indonesia, has been perceived widely here as having done too little.

At times, she has also been perceived to encourage the process as seen by some of the privileges enjoyed by her husband, business tycoon Taufik Kiemas.

Sources said Mr Taufik had tried to intervene at the 11th hour to bail out his longtime political ally, Mr Akbar, only to be stopped in his tracks by the President.

Seizing the momentum following the arrest last week of another Golkar official, Rahardi Ramelan, Ms Megawati opted for the second choice – to throw her archrival behind bars.

Mr Akbar also had two choices.

For one, he could give in to a parliamentary probe team which could disclose potentially embarrassing details of how money was allegedly siphoned off for Golkar’s election campaign. Or, he could face legal prosecution.

Golkar sources said that he preferred the latter, given the big chance that he could wiggle his way out eventually. But he was caught on the back foot on Thursday night when he was ordered to prison.

Diplomatic sources said that the President might have secured damning information from the Attorney-General’s Office before pursuing this course.

The thought of facing the wrath and might of Golkar in Parliament is no comfort.

But the threat of the New Order relic might be exaggerated given its relative isolation in Parliament and inability to forge alliances with other parties against the PDI-P.

Indeed, most of the key players – the United Development Party, the National Mandate Party and the Nation Awakening Party – are behind Ms Megawati on this.

The President has scored big points in acting against Mr Akbar.

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