The power behind Megawati
Mr Taufik Kiemas may not be running for the presidency but he pulls the strings in Indonesian politics. The husband of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, he plotted her rise to the top and is now working behind the scenes for her re-election. The Straits Times’ Indonesia Bureau Chief DERWIN PEREIRA reports on the larger-than-life figure.
The power behind the throne smiles.
Mr Taufik Kiemas, the garrulous husband of President Megawati Sukarnoputri, sips hot Javanese tea and munches kueh lapis as he talks animatedly about his wife’s impending re-election.
He should know. The 59-year-old Sumatran-born business tycoon is the dalang or puppet master in the courts of power, working quietly behind the scenes to build alliances and destroy her foes.
Behind every successful man is a woman, or so runs an old saying. In the corridors of the presidential palace in Indonesia, the roles have been reversed. Today, he is primus inter pares in national politics, even if he is not one of the presidential contenders.
And the nicknames he has earned these past few years speak volumes about his role.
During national tragedies, he is Pak Taufik, the avuncular and comforting figure standing by his wife.
He is T.K., the ultimate wheeler and dealer in politics. He is also Mr One-and-a-Half, a man who is not quite the president, but rather more than the No. 2.
For palace detractors, however, he is none other than President Taufik.
He responds to this with guffaws of laughter that punctuate the regal silence in his plush office surrounded by huge portraits of husband and wife together.
‘I am not the king,’ he says. ‘I am only here to protect Ibu Mega who I feel is the best person to run this country.’
He is not to be mistaken as a eunuch, because he certainly wields considerable power and influence – way before his wife’s ascendancy to the throne.
It was he who crafted her entry into politics and put her back into the Merdeka palace where she spent much of her childhood.
He first met Megawati in 1964. He was the poor boy from South Sumatra who sold kerosene door-to-door to make a living. She was raised in the lap of luxury as the daughter of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno.
Political circumstances brought them together. Both were student activists for the Sukarno-led Indonesian National Party (PNI). He recounts that meeting arranged by her eldest brother, with a tinge of nostalgia: ‘She was dressed in batik and had such a beautiful smile. She was like a princess. She was Sukarno’s daughter.’
Love only blossomed much later – after years of much personal misfortune for both. Ms Megawati lost her husband, an air force pilot, in an air crash. Her second marriage to an Egyptian diplomat was annulled after two weeks following her family’s objections.
The young Taufik was behind bars during this period for supporting Sukarno. After he got out of jail, he allied himself with the former first family just after Sukarno’s death under house arrest.
The closer he got to the family, the more enamoured he became of Ms Megawati.
He wooed his hero’s daughter and, in 1973, the pauper married the princess. After marriage, he showed far more ambition than she did.
In the mid-80s, he managed to get her to enter the political fray. Circumstances were favourable then.
Backed by the Suharto regime, the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), a lineal descent of the PNI, sought to involve the Sukarno clan in the 1987 poll.
Military elements were also warming up to them, especially to Mr Taufik.
‘I remember the night she said yes,’ he says. ‘She put the children in bed and sat down and talked with me for hours. She was reluctant to enter politics because she said her only desire in life was to be a housewife.
‘I told her that she is Sukarno’s daughter. Her only destiny in life is to be Indonesia’s leader. I managed to persuade her. Ask her today, and she will tell you it was the best decision of her life. It was a turning point for both of us.’
It marked their entry into the rough and tumble of Indonesian politics. Ms Megawati turned out to be a big draw at party rallies. Mr Taufik, who was standing for election in his Palembang hometown, saw the chance to sow the seeds of opposition to the Suharto regime.
He used the cash – about US$200,000 (S$340,000) a month – from a chain of petrol stations given to them by Mr Suharto to keep them out of politics, to fund underground resistance.
A close friend says: ‘T.K. was hard-headed. He kept telling us then that it was a point of no return for him and his wife. Without him, Ibu Mega would never have got this far.’
They cleared many hurdles along the way, the most painful being the government backing of a breakaway PDI faction to forcibly take over the party’s headquarters in July 1996.
But each blow only raised her political stature and strengthened Mr Taufik’s resolve.
During these years, he mastered the art of politics and developed a ruthless streak.
His ambition also knew no bounds with Mr Suharto out of the way.
In 1999, when Ms Megawati was robbed of the throne despite winning the legislative poll, he was one of the main figures who persuaded her to accept the vice-presidency with the prophetic advice that her ‘time will come soon’.
Two years later, he engineered his wife’s rise to the top through backroom dealings and funding a concerted campaign in parliament to topple then president Abdurrahman Wahid.
Mr Taufik is a very powerful, although unconventional, player in government. Holding no official position, except as a legislator, he does not work by the official channels.
But his networking and ability to navigate the subterranean levels of politics are second to none.
T.K. is a dyed-in-the-wool politician who has done wonders for the reticent and media-shy President by being her chief negotiator and public defender. He also whittles down her opponents.
At times, he has been criticised for overstepping the boundaries – especially abroad where he has insisted on joining official delegations.
A government official reveals that during an economic ministers meeting in Tokyo, he insisted on sitting in on bilateral talks with Japan. After all, he is Mr One-and-a Half.
‘He was upset that the Japanese did not consider him part of the official delegation,’ the source says.
‘The Japanese decided eventually to let him in on one of the meetings and he let all them know who was the boss by barking orders to the Indonesian ministers.’
His influence, however, is most pervasive at home.
Within the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), he and his allies hold most of the key positions. He has purged several members opposed to his vision for the party.
The most prominent was Ms Megawati’s chief strategist, Mr Eros Djarot. A publisher and filmmaker, he had largely crafted her image as both martyr and mother figure, helping the PDI-P capture 33.8 per cent of the votes in 1999.
Mr Taufik sacked him a year later after learning that he was planning to replace Ms Megawati as party chief. More heads rolled in the following years, including the likes of party stalwarts Dimyati Hartono and Sophan Sophiaan.
PDI-P senior Meilono Soewondo, one of his strongest critics, says: ‘Only one man wields power in the party: Taufik Kiemas. You are either with him or against him.’
By emasculating his enemies, Mr Taufik has now surrounded himself with a close circle of friends from the party. They include Messrs Tjahyo Kumolo, Suparlan, Nazarudin Kiemas and Cornelius Lay.
Some even talk of him as PDI-P’s next chairman, speculation Mr Taufik rebuffs with another loud burst of laughter.
But he has not had his way all the time. He could do little, for example, to restrain the unbridled bureaucratic power of his nemesis Bambang Kesowo, the Cabinet Secretary. In a rare show of defiance, Ms Megawati refused to give in to his demands.
Despite this setback, he has worked assiduously to get his men into key positions. One is them is Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso. Increasingly, many of them hail from Palembang. They include army chief Ryamizard Ryacudu and the head of the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency, Mr Syafruddin Temenggung.
Mr Syafruddin is the key man in redistributing tens of billions of dollars of assets inherited from banks that failed in the economic crisis.
The most high profile of them in Cabinet now is the Minister for State Enterprises, Mr Laksamana Sukardi, a one-time ally of Mr Eros. Through Mr Laksamana, he has managed to control cash cows such as Pertamina, Indosat and Telkom.
In 1999, the party generated millions of dollars even though it was not in power. Today, the amount has grown considerably amid accusations it acquired the funds from Indonesian conglomerates such as Sreenivasan Marimuthu and Nursalim.
Mr Taufik’s critics say his shady dealings with them have made him a liability. But in the broad scheme of things, he has turned out to be an asset for Ms Megawati and the PDI-P.
Building a huge war chest has helped the party spread the patronage network far and wide. A lot of that money has gone to East Java, Nadhlatul Ulama’s (NU) home base.
A consummate political strategist, Mr Taufik has been plotting his wife’s re-election for the past two years. For him, there are no eternal enemies across political lines just alliances yet to be made.
A year after bringing him down, Mr Taufik bowed and kissed the hand of Mr Abdurrahman, who still remains an influential NU figure. As Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, the NU is an important electoral constituency for the president.
He spread his wings wide in the NU and was instrumental in prodding his wife to make the trip to Malang in East Java two weeks ago to meet chairman Hasyim Muzadi.
He believes that any coalition has to factor the Muslim ground. ‘Being a nationalist Muslim, she needs to ally herself with a Muslim nationalist. That is the formula for political stability in Indonesia.’
Clearly, Mr Hasyim is one of the candidates for the vice presidency. More significantly, another man on the list is Coordinating Minister for Welfare Jusuf Kalla. Mr Jusuf is a Golkar man from South Sulawesi with strong ties to Islamic groups.
Mr Taufik concedes with a wry grin: ‘Golkar is simply our best choice.’
His aides say that if the PDI-P and Golkar combine forces, they would clinch the presidential election in the first round because others like NU, PKB and the military would also throw their weight behind such a coalition.
This could be one reason the palace might have acquiesced with the Supreme Court decision two weeks ago to exonerate Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung on corruption charges.
The Taufik camp believes that Mr Akbar would be more receptive to an alliance with PDI-P, compared with other Golkar contenders like Mr Wiranto, who was seen ‘as a greater threat’.
It is still an open question whether the two juggernauts will coalesce. But the acquittal has weakened Mr Wiranto’s position by allowing Mr Akbar to strengthen his grip on Golkar.
Mr Taufik says things are looking bright for Ms Megawati and the PDI-P, which he believes will win 40 per cent of the votes in the general election.
He notes: ‘Ibu Mega has brought back political and economic stability to the country. Indonesia needs a traditional and feudal leader. Megawati is that person. She also has a beautiful smile that can win the hearts and minds of the poor.
‘Don’t believe all the surveys that run us down. We will win.’
As the puppet master working behind the screen, he has it all worked out.
But will the power behind the throne make a bid for the presidency himself one day? Or would he be content to remain just as Pak Taufik, T.K. and Mr One-and-a-Half?