Mega’s public makeover may be too little, too late

Increasing public and media appearances unlikely to be enough to win presidential race against popular, well-funded


Last week, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri toured several markets in the capital.

Dressed in flowery batik, the incumbent could not resist buying cashew nuts from one of the stalls for about 20,000 rupiah (S$3.60).

The vendor was touched and those who had turned out to welcome her were impressed as she smiled and held hands with the wong cilik or ‘little people’.

The President was on a mission to court the ground of the disillusioned – the voters who deserted her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) in the April election.

Ms Megawati has also appeared at many public events, including one with the mother of Miss Nirmala Bonat, an Indonesian maid allegedly tortured by her employer in Malaysia.

And she has been playing to the media gallery.

She held her first-ever press conference with foreign journalists and also gave a number of television interviews to local stations, even though she appeared reluctant and irritated at times answering difficult questions.

The 57-year-old leader has come out of her palace cocoon to win votes. But are her efforts too little too late?

Her political advisers are pursuing a dual strategy – tapping populist sentiments and engaging in anti-New Order rhetoric.

They have set up a 20-member campaign team that is working with provincial branches of her PDI-P and non-governmental organisations to shore up her waning popularity.

They are trying to get her to revamp her image, by nature elusive and conservative, to be more ‘people-oriented’ – and to pursue populist policies to win the hearts and minds of voters.

She is not just kissing babies and mingling more with farmers, fishermen and labourers.

Her administration is also coming up with election sweeteners.

It has created a plan to give a 13th month bonus to all civil servants, including the military, which could cost the government almost S$1.5 billion.

It is also pressing ahead with fuel subsidies.

Drawing from the experience of 2003 when unpopular economic policies resulted in a fervent backlash – most conspicuously demonstrated by the disastrous performance of the PDI-P in the April parliamentary election – her backers see populist measures as the only way to win a few million extra votes.

For the Megawati team, this strategy will reap dividends if they can also do one thing: demolish the image of rivals tainted by links to the Suharto regime.

Even before election campaigning, the PDI-P sent out feelers warning of militarism and a return of a New Order-style government.

On paper, the grand strategy could see her launch a more concerted bid for the presidency. But she might have entered the game far too late – a view that is held even by senior PDI-P members and palace aides.

Clearly, the tectonic plate has shifted in Indonesia.

The results of the general election point to one indisputable fact: the older established parties such as Golkar and PDI-P have lost ground.

People want a new face.

Ms Megawati might be able to draw on 20 per cent of the expected 140 million voters – most of whom will be hardcore Sukarnoists. She could also tap a few more million from the Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), given the links of her running mate Hasyim Muzadi to the country’s largest Muslim organisation.

But even that is becoming problematic after a fatwa issued last week by influential NU clerics not to vote for a woman president.

History is coming back to haunt Ms Megawati.

She lost out on the chance to become president in the 1999 national assembly session after Muslim politicians conspired to block her by issuing a similar ruling.

In a direct presidential election, it could have an even greater bearing, especially if her enemies can sway the Muslim ground by attacking her religious credentials and invoking Islamic principles.

That leaves her two major rivals – Mr Wiranto and Mr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – in an even stronger position. Mr Bambang is popular and Mr Wiranto has a huge war chest and party machinery linked to the 40-million-strong NU.

Ms Megawati is now trailing the two retired generals. Some of her campaign advisers believe she still has a fighting chance to get re-elected but campaign cosmetics and bluster stand little chance against the dictates of realpolitik in Indonesia today.

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