Mega out to charm the little people’

She plans to recapture lost ground by mingling with the masses and hammering home her rivals’ Suharto connections.

Devastated by her party’s defeat in the legislative polls, President Megawati Sukarnoputri is getting ready to work the ground.

Over the coming months, expect the 55-year-old leader to leave her palace cocoon to crisscross the vast archipelago with one mission: to win precious votes.

She will be kissing babies, mingling more with farmers, fishermen and labourers and explaining government policies.

By nature elusive and conservative, she is trying to revamp her image to get closer to the wong cilik or little people.

For her advisers, this strategy will reap dividends if they can also do one thing: demolish the image of her rivals who are tainted by their links to the Suharto regime.

Campaign manager and chief election strategist Laksamana Sukardi told The Straits Times in an interview: ‘I don’t think anyone can fault a leader whose policies have brought political and economic stability to Indonesia.

‘But her introverted image let her down. She has failed to reach out to the people.

‘Yes, it is a problem but it is something that can be overcome. Bear in mind this is a woman that fought a psychopathic regime and is cleaning up the mess it left behind.

‘She just needs to work harder to win over the ground. She will be doing more campaigning than governing in the coming months.’

Mr Laksamana, who is also Minister for State Owned Enterprises, disclosed that the defeat of her Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) had forced Megawati loyalists to the drawing table.

They have set up a 20-member team to work with PDI-P branches in the provinces and with non-governmental organisations to shore up her waning popularity.

Her approval ratings have dipped. She is now a distant second to retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Mr Laksamana said the party hopes to explain unpopular government policies through the media and lobbyists to win over the ‘floating masses’.

‘We have about 20 per cent of supporters whom we consider hardcore. But there is a large number of people out there who are still undecided. The challenge is to win them over,’ he noted.

The key is still Ms Megawati – to get her to relive her symbolic appeal as Sukarno’s daughter and drum home her achievements as President.

Mr Laksamana believes she will be driven to campaign aggressively, especially after PDI-P’s loss.

‘The party’s performance in the election has been a wake-up call for all of us,’ he said.

Party members attributed PDI-P’s defeat to what some describe as ‘the Air Force One syndrome’.

Explained one source who was involved in the post-mortem: ‘In 1999, she was just an opposition figure. She did not have any resources and was forced many times to stay overnight in provinces she was travelling to.

‘Now she has a private jet, her own Air Force One, that allows her to spend just a few hours in every region she visits.

‘There was no chance to talk to the people. She was seen as distant and aloof.’

It is crucial for Ms Megawati to cultivate the ground. But making up the numbers will require a credible coalition partner.

Her options are wearing thin. With her preferred choice, the former Coordinating Minister for Welfare Jusuf Kalla, joining forces with her arch-rival Bambang, she is just left with two choices.

One is her deputy Hamzah Haz, who heads the Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP). The other is possibly Nadhlatul Ulama chairman Hasyim Muzadi.

Mr Laksamana refuses to be drawn into whether a deal has been cut with either one. But he made it clear that the two were ideal choices because they ‘were not associated with the New Order regime’.

‘Like us, both the PPP and NU were oppressed by Suharto. We will never work with people who are tarnished by corruption and human rights abuses.’

Some see this comment as a veiled attack on Ms Megawati’s closest challengers – Mr Wiranto and Mr Bambang – two generals who served under former president Suharto.

Indeed, Mr Laksamana disclosed that the PDI-P will go all out to discredit those with links to the New Order regime.

‘Our message to the masses will be: beware of those who destroyed this country that Ibu Mega has worked so hard to rebuild.’

Does Ms Megawati have a chance with the rise of the generals?

Mr Laksamana had this to say: ‘This election will be a war on personality and image. Whatever you say about Ibu Mega, she has a better image than her rivals. She is not staring at a scandal or a policy catastrophe. A week is a long time in politics. She still has a fighting chance.’

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