Mixed report card on Mega’s presidency one year on

Five years ago, Indonesia was given a precious chance to start anew when former president Suharto fell from power.

The question on everyone’s minds then was whether a new leader would be able to bring about total reform in the country.

Three presidents on and that question remains rhetorical – if not irrelevant – for Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Indonesia’s fifth leader since independence celebrated her first year in power this week without the accomplishments her supporters dreamed of when she rose to power in July last year.

The reform targets they set her then were ambitious: eradicate corruption, reform the military and bring about economic recovery.

Her report card in terms of meeting these targets is dismal. The Indonesian legal system is under attack, human-rights activists scream murder as generals plot a blitzkrieg in Aceh and the economy is still in a mess.

But no one can disagree that after five years of tumultuous and erratic leadership under Dr B.J. Habibie and Mr Abdurrahman Wahid, a semblance of much-needed political stability has returned to Indonesia.

By trading the ideals of reformasi for stability, a measure of autocratic rule has brought some dividends for the country. Public discourse, though, has been largely negative, fuelled by continued fixation over reformasi.


AN OPINION poll conducted by the Kompas daily last week revealed what the public felt about the Megawati administration. The survey questioned 1,773 respondents in 13 cities and revealed how confidence in her leadership had dipped drastically.

They rated the government’s performance in politics and the judiciary as poor. Only 21 per cent expressed some satisfaction with its track record in these areas, compared with 52 per cent during the first three months of her rule.

In the fight against corruption, an even larger number – 85 per cent – said the record was dismal.

What is even more instructive to note in this survey is that 74 per cent of the respondents who castigated the administration are supporters of her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P).

These are legitimate concerns. But what the survey needs to point out is that much of these problems, especially corruption, are so deeply rooted in Indonesia that it will take a generation or two to fix them.

It will involve a mindset change at all levels of society. Better public relations would have taken the sting out of some of these criticisms.

Clearly, what Ms Megawati needs to work on is her style of governance, which some consider too Byzantine, shrouded behind a wall of Javanese cultural conservatism.

The many problems of the current administration are caused by her reluctance to be more open to public scrutiny. For months, the media has questioned the role of her husband Taufik Kiemas in several political and business deals.

But she has remained mum about the matter as she has on several other issues, including her decision to back unpopular Jakarta governor Sutiyoso for another term of office, and the mysterious disappearance of funds from the State

A stinging editorial in The Jakarta Post noted: ‘Megawati has not tried hard enough to build, maintain or sell a good image of a leader.

‘She seems to be ignorant of, or perhaps confident of, her image with the public, thus causing people sometimes to call her insensitive. She has tended to let the enigma grow around her.’

Enigma? There is no real enigma to the 55-year-old leader. In mind and heart, she is a nationalist and an autocrat. That explains her policy prescriptions in strife-torn areas like Aceh and Papua.

Her advisers say that she is prepared to give dialogue with the rebels a chance, but if that fails, there is little doubt that she will resort to using force or imposing martial law.

What many have failed to realise is that, in the last year, the threat of secessionism in Indonesia has receded considerably because of her hard-headed policies towards strife-torn regions.

In doing so, she has given the armed forces a much freer rein to dictate the security agenda in troubled provinces.

She has shrewdly courted the generals to do her bidding, concluding from the experience of her last two predecessors that military backing continues to be essential for survival against self-serving rivals ganging up against her.

The price she has to pay for this backing? Go slow on pressing for internal reform in the armed forces.

But it might be a price well worth paying if it buys Indonesia crucial political stability that could pave the way for faster economic recovery.


IT IS instructive to note that the country’s macro-economic indicators picked up visibly during the first half of this year. The rupiah has strengthened to a nine-month high.

Sure, there are problems to address. These include the privatisation and sale of assets under the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency. Exports and direct investments have also declined marginally but more as a result of market conditions.

These do not hide the fact that there is some measure of progress in kick-starting an economy that showed no hope of recovery in recent years.

On the foreign-policy front, she has scored critical success in restoring close ties with Washington, four years after the East Timor debacle.

As a result of her quiet backing for the United States-led global war on terrorism, Jakarta could see much-needed funds, equipment and training headed the way of the Indonesian military.

On balance, the President’s performance during the last 12 months has been mixed.

But unlike her predecessors who were fighting for survival for much of their rule, Ms Megawati’s reign has not been marked by any serious challenge.

The reform agenda will continue to be a thorn in her side. But the President and her advisers are wise enough to look at the big picture – that what Indonesia needs urgently is a heavy dose of stability to win back much-needed foreign investments rather than following blindly the scriptures of Western-style democracy.

Vociferous criticism against her administration has more to do with self-serving politicians stirring the pot to strengthen their own chances for the presidency in 2004.

People will be whining about her from now until the next election but she does not face any imminent threat of an ouster. The Islamic vote is fractured and the Golkar party has not allowed a decent interval to pass before it can contend for the top seat.

That is her saving grace: There are no clear alternatives to her presidency today.

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