Thugs! – Why Mega is attacking her party members

NEWS ANALYSIS

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri is suffering from a bout of the jitters with elections around the corner.

Delivering a broadside this week against members of her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) – the second in over a month – she accused cadres of corruption and called them ‘thugs’ who were out of touch with voters.

Ms Megawati’s latest outburst underscores growing concern over the PDI-P’s waning popularity as the 2004 election looms.

It was an attempt to rein in corrupt cadres who could hinder her chances for the presidency.

She has grounds for worry.

Surveys carried out in Indonesia in recent months suggest that the PDI-P’s fortunes are dimming.

They have consistently shown that Golkar will reap the largest number of votes in the general election while confidence levels in other major parties – including Ms Megawati’s PDI-P – have plunged.

Mistrust towards the PDI-P has almost doubled over the past two years; it is now perceived to be a party preoccupied with power and privilege.

Ms Megawati is ahead in the polls but her party is expected to lose many seats in Parliament.

That is a view held even by PDI-P seniors.

On Monday, Cabinet member Kwik Kian Gie denounced the ruling party as corrupt and predicted that it would suffer at the ballot box.

The PDI-P could lose three important blocks of voters.

The first is the crop of new voters. Mr Kwik said it is unlikely that Ms Megawati will receive the backing from first-time voters who make up about 7 per cent of the estimated 140 million who will vote in the general election next year.

Many of them are the very people who took to the streets against planned price hikes earlier this year.

Another is the large number of ex-Golkar cadres who crossed over to the PDI-P in 1999. Disillusionment with PDI-P policies might force many of them to return to Golkar.

The third group is likely to come from voters loyal to the Nadhlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim group that former president Abdurrahman Wahid used to head.

Many of them have not forgotten Ms Megawati’s ‘constitutional coup’ against him before seizing power in 2001.

PDI-P member Meilono Soewondo, who is closely allied with oil baron Arifin Panigoro, is a former ally and now fierce critic of the President.

He said: ‘For a long time, she was oblivious to the party’s problems. But now, she appears to be suffering from an anxiety attack, especially with Golkar riding high in the polls.’

Clearly, public dissatisfaction with her party is growing.

Critics say that central to that is Ms Megawati’s failure to keep her promises to curb graft and bring economic benefits to the poor since she took office two years ago.

That is why the soft-spoken and media-shy President saw fit to engage in a rare public attack against her party members.

‘There are legislators who have never gone back to their constituencies, let alone fight for their causes,’ she said during the national party convention in Jakarta this week.

‘Why have I been lied to?’ she said, adding that senior party leaders had been paid off or were ‘involved in money politics’ to keep silent about corrupt members.

She warned that she would fire anyone found to be involved in corruption or a cover-up. ‘I like being the head of PDI-P, but I am tired of looking out for these thugs.’

Her detractors accuse her of double standards. Why pick on party members when some of her closest associates are also tainted?

But underpinning Ms Megawati’s message was not a newfound zeal to stem the rot of corruption that has been all pervasive in Indonesia for the past 30 years.

At its core, the message is about restoring the PDI-P’s battered image.

It is clear that she is trying to steer the party back on course. A massive turnover of cadres is taking place in the provinces. Old members are being axed and new ones recruited.

Ms Megawati knows that if the PDI-P does badly in the parliamentary election in April next year, her chances in the presidential race three months later could shrink.

The stakes have increased with Golkar closing the gap on PDI-P.

These are testing times for the President and her party.

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