Win, win for Megawati

Islamic opponents defeated on syariah.

She’s almost certain to be re-elected.

Indonesian President’s opponents ended up clipping their own wings by passing a series of vital constitutional changes.


Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s opponents may have wanted the just-concluded national assembly session to be a referendum on her one year in office and a chance to unseat her.

It was anything but.

They ironically laid the groundwork for potentially undercutting their own political influence by passing a series of constitutional amendments that clipped the powers of the highest legislative body in Indonesia – and by default, strengthened the hand of the President and the secular-nationalists.

In the space of a week, Ms Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) turned the tables on her Islamic opponents to block the controversial amendment on syariah, and more importantly, make it almost a certainty that she would be re-elected in 2004.

Political observer Arbi Sanit of the University of Indonesia told The Straits Times: ‘This is a clear victory for the President. It will strengthen her position up until 2004 and even beyond.’

The decision by the 700-member People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) to abolish its own role as an electoral college that picks the country’s leader is regarded as the most important constitutional change since the 1960s.

Since Dutch colonial rule ended after World War II, the assembly has elected the country’s head of state for a five-year term. But legislators and pro-democracy groups have been pressing since 1998 for a direct vote.

The proposal calls for a two-stage election for President in 2004, in case no candidate wins an outright majority in the first round. The crucial issue now is if electoral laws can be passed in time.

The PDI-P sources believe that if that were to happen, it could lead to a contest between the nationalist Megawati and an Islamic leader the likes of current Vice-President Hamzah Haz.

A senior PDI-P official said: ‘This MPR has paved the way for a straight fight between the nationalists and Muslim forces in 2004. Ibu Mega will have the advantage, given stronger grassroots support.’

If anything, the 55-year-old leader and nationalists scored a symbolic victory over Muslim hardliners – spearheaded by the United Development Party and smaller Islamic parties – by warding off their attempts to introduce the syariah. It is a telling sign of how the vote could go in a parliamentary election that instructively for the last 30 years has been very much in favour of the secular nationalists.

A senior diplomat said: ‘The radicals faced opposition from even other Muslim groups like the Nahdlatul Ulama and the Muhammadiyah. They are all noise but don’t have the political clout to make things happen. It is a harbinger of things to come.’

Some might argue that the decision to abolish 38 un-elected parliamentary seats for the powerful military by 2004 could be a setback for the President.

Since taking office last July, she has leaned closely to the generals as a counter-veiling force against Muslim hardliners.

Two years ago, the MPR agreed to end the representation of the military and police in Parliament from 2004, but the option was left open for them to be represented in the top legislature until 2009.

Given public pressure against the generals remaining in the legislature, sources said that Ms Megawati and her party saw it in their interest to back their ‘ouster’ as an ‘act of public relations’.

PDI-P official Meilona Soewondo told The Straits Times: ‘Agreeing to get the military out of the legislature strengthens her reformasi credentials.’

Analyst Ken Conboy of the Control Risks Group believes that contrary to widespread perceptions, the generals are no losers here.

He said: ‘It gives the military the best of both worlds. It allows them to retain influence but it absolves them of any political accountability.’

Proponents of democracy will argue that what took place this last week is a step forward for Indonesia. But sceptics think

The amendments will reduce drastically the strength of what has been so far the country’s most powerful state institution. Besides losing its power to elect the President, it will also not be able to change or make laws in the future.

Mr Arbi Sanit said: ‘The real concern is whether in the name of democracy we are vesting too much powers in Megawati without any checks and balances. This will only allow her natural instincts as an autocrat to grow. The clock might be turning back for Indonesia.’

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