Mega Power, Mega Problems

JULY 2004

President Megawati might have strong mass appeal, but she is fighting for re-election both with a resurgent Golkar and within her own PDI-P party.

Indonesia’s Golkar party will hold an American-style convention next month to choose the candidates it will pit against President Megawati Sukarnoputri in the country’s first direct presidential polls next July.

But the country’s second-biggest political force is not her only worry. She is already fighting battles on two fronts in her bid for re-election.

One skirmish is with legislators grasping at whatever they can to knock her off her pedestal. The other, ironically, is with members of her Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P).

While she is still the leading contender, protests have surrounded her government’s tariff increases earlier this year, and criticism of her leadership style has grown.

A series of scandals have also hit the palace, most recently, the controversial purchase of Russian fighter jets.

While no politician can compete with her mass appeal, polls conducted by local think-tanks here over the past 12 months suggest that the public is increasingly considering alternatives to Ms Megawati.

Analysts believe that she is likely to lose three important blocks of voters.

She is unlikely to again receive huge support from first-time voters, estimated at about 10 million, because many of them are the very people who protested against the price increases.

She may also lose the large block of former Golkar cadres who crossed over to the PDI-P in 1999. All signs are that they will return to Golkar, given increasing disillusionment with the PDI-P’s policies.

The third group of voters are those loyal to the Nadhlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim group once headed by former president Abdurrahman Wahid.

They have not forgotten her constitutional coup against the Muslim cleric in 2001 that led to his downfall.

Ms Megawati’s biggest challenge, however, will be to rein in opponents within her own party.

Much to the chagrin of PDI-P legislators, who backed her rise to power, her party priorities are fast giving way to palace interests. At least two issues have tested their relationship recently.

The most conspicuous one is the Sukhoigate scandal and Trade and Industry Minister Rini Soewandi’s role in it.

Ms Rini’s links with the President have given her access to the inner circle of the palace. She has had a crucial say in mapping out the political strategy for Ms Megawati’s re-election next year.

That has angered some party members, and they have tried to use the scandal to attack Ms Rini openly and force her ouster. But Ms Megawati would never let such a trusted aide go.

A palace insider said: ‘Ibu (Mother) Mega never allows party bickering to influence her when it comes to Cabinet matters. She is strong enough to overcome any opposition to Rini or any other minister.

‘The President believes that without her name, the PDI-P is nothing. Party members owe her a living – not the other way around.’

Indeed, such thinking has coloured Ms Megawati’s responses in the past when faced with pressure from senior PDI-P members to replace a minister or politician.

She also stood behind another loyalist, retired Major-General Theo Syafei, recently.

He was accused by PDI-P members of engineering the appointment of a top Golkar cadre to the East Kalimantan governorship instead of backing a party candidate.

He had reportedly been acting under the President’s orders, doing this in return for a donation of 6 billion rupiah (S$1.2 million) that went straight to the palace coffers.

The next few months could see even greater friction between Ms Megawati’s loyalists and the PDI-P central executive board. There are already signs of open resentment against her at the provincial level.

This has forced her to sack at least 20 PDI-P dissenters in the past two months. But Ms Megawati needs to watch her step – she is making more enemies these days.

Parliament – and opposition party leaders in it who have presidential aspirations – is another problem.

Central to this challenge is Golkar, which is clearly emerging as the single biggest threat to the President.

After four years in the doldrums, the party has rediscovered its nerve, with its chairman Akbar Tandjung a leading contender for the top job next year.

This time last year, Golkar seemed to be hobbling towards the election after Mr Akbar was convicted of corruption in the Bulog scandal.

But despite internal factionalism over his legal predicament, he has managed to fight any attempts to take the party chairmanship from him.

His principal rivals on Golkar’s central board, Mr Fahmi Idris and Mr Agung Laksono, realised that mounting a leadership challenge would only tear apart the party – especially with at least 70 per cent of the provincial branches leaning towards Mr Akbar.

Despite forecasts of gloom for Ms Megawati, though, she remains the only candidate with strong grassroots support, especially in the political heartland of Java.

In 1999, the PDI-P won the majority of the votes cast in 13 provinces: North Sumatra, Riau, Jambi, Bengkulu, South Sumatra, Lampung, West Java, Jakarta, Central Java, Yogyakarta, Bali, Central Kalimantan and East Kalimantan.

She is unlikely to have problems maintaining her popularity in these provinces.

Secondly, and more importantly, as the incumbent, she has the authority to mobilise resources needed to win an election. In 1999, her PDI-P party raised millions of dollars at a time when she was just a party leader.

Her husband, Mr Taufik Kiemas, has played a crucial role in the fund-raising effort, given his connections to several business leaders in the country.

The key will be to forge a winning political alliance.

With about 120 million votes to be cast, a winner would need at least 55 million to clinch the presidency.

The Van Zorge report, which analyses trends in Indonesian politics and economics, noted: ‘PDI-P and Golkar have reason to be confident, but each of them would still need to ally itself with another strong party or an alliance of parties if it is to succeed in pushing its sponsored tickets first past the post.’

Golkar might be the single biggest threat to the PDI-P, given its grassroots reach and well-oiled infrastructure.

But it also represents the most natural ally for Ms Megawati’s party.

Both parties represent the political mainstream and have the most acceptable ideological platform – secular nationalism – for the majority of Indonesians.

A Cabinet minister, who is a close confidante of the President, told The Straits Times that Ms Megawati’s game plan is to forge an alliance with Golkar, preferably with Coordinating Minister for Welfare Jusuf Kalla.

Golkar would be prepared to sleep with the enemy to get into power. But it is unlikely that the President will have her choice of Mr Jusuf given Mr Akbar’s rise.

Palace sources disclose that Mr Taufik is already working behind the scenes to get the Golkar leader to accept the vice-presidency in return for dropping the pending corruption case against him.

In essence, Ms Megawati has very few choices.

In her, the PDI-P has a strong candidate, but she will not settle for any arrangement other than another shot at the presidency. She will never play second fiddle to Golkar.

Some speculate that she could link up with Mr Hasyim Muzadi of the Nation Awakening Party (PKB) to tap NU support. But the baggage of toppling Mr Abdurrahman two years ago will be a major obstacle here.

The other option would be to work with Vice-President Hamzah Haz, who heads the Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP).

If these fail, she will likely opt for someone with broad exposure but no proven grassroots political support. This could include security czar Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

But there is no guarantee that any of these figures would bring in the votes for her.

Amid all the uncertainty ahead of a presidential election that will, for the first time, be decided by a direct vote, two things are becoming clear.

First, the presidency will be decided in two rounds.

Round one is unlikely to produce a majority vote given that some five to seven candidates will be in the running for the coveted post.

It would inevitably lead to a second round that would pit the top two presidential tickets in a head-to-head, first-past-the-post election.

The other certainty is that the main players will be no different from those who ran in the race four years ago. The big partes, along with their candidates, will set the agenda and be the winners and losers.

Five parties will be on this list – the PDI-P, Golkar, PPP, PKB and the National Mandate Party (PAN).

There will be newcomers, but none will be able to challenge major contenders such as Ms Megawati or a leading Golkar candidate.

Historical antecedents favour the secular nationalists.

The Muslim bloc may well constitute the all-important swing vote. But it is unlikely to mount a serious challenge given its limited appeal to mainstream voters.

The election race appears to be opening up, but amid the euphoria of the transition to democracy, there is a dose of surrealism in Indonesian politics: There are no clear alternatives yet to the incumbent.

TOMORROW: Election watch on Japan – why no one knows exactly when the country will hold its polls.


SHE is unlikely to get huge support from first-time voters, estimated at about 10 million. Many of those who protested against her price increases came from this group.

Indications are that Golkar voters who crossed over in 1999 to support her are going back.

Voters loyal to the Nadhlatul Ulama will remember how she deposed their chief Abdurrahman Wahid.

She also faces disquiet from PDI-P legislators, who backed her rise to power. Her party priorities are fast giving way to palace interests, they say.

Golkar has rediscovered its nerve after losing in 1999.


Megawati Sukarnoputri

A strong proponent of a united republic, the homemaker-turned-president has made suppressing separatist guerillas in the rebel state of Aceh a priority.

She has also vowed to press on with difficult financial reforms to revitalise the economy. Recent tariff increases have made her the target of protests and she has been criticised for her leadership style.

Akbar Tandjung

The Golkar chairman was convicted of mishandling millions of dollars in state funds. As a result, the party seemed to be limping towards the election last year.

Now, however, he is one of the leading contenders for the top job. His party, which held on to power like an iron vice for three decades until 1998, is emerging as the single biggest threat to Ms Megawati.

Amien Rais

Although his political support base accounted for only 6 per cent of the vote during the 1999 election, the down-to-earth Speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly has on past occasions declared his desire to be the nation’s president.

He is counting on a popular running mate to boost his chances in the country’s first direct presidential election.

Jusuf Kalla

The Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare has declared himself a candidate for Golkar’s convention to select its presidential candidate.

Mr Jusuf, reportedly untainted by corruption, put himself in the limelight recently, spending much of his time touring the provinces to personally observe the ravages of a severe drought.

Hasyim Muzadi

Indonesia’s largest grassroots Islamic organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama, has come close to naming chairman Hasyim as a candidate for the presidential election.

But he has played down the nomination, saying he would accept it only if his candidacy received the full support of both the organisation and the National Awakening Party.

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

A retired military officer with the rank of four-star general and the current Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs, he has been proposed as a candidate for the presidency by the Democrat Party.


Military chief during the bloody days of the independence vote that led to the formation of Timor Leste, the former general has also been put forward as a potential candidate. But his star has waned with allegations of military-backed militia violence in the former Indonesian province.

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