Can Mega charm her way to victory in time?
The President has metamorphosed into an energetic and flamboyant grassroots politician – but it may all be too late.
The twin-engine Fokker swooped down in the afternoon heat, kicking up yellow dust that snaked across the bumpy airport tarmac.
President Megawati Sukarnoputri, dressed in her trademark flowery batik, emerged from the plane to the cheering hundreds in West Nusa Tenggara.
She waved at the crowds before heading to the VIP room for some tea and kueh.
This has become an almost daily routine for the incumbent, who is fighting what could be her last battle to hang on to power.
Criticised for being aloof and elusive, the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno has shed her palace cocoon and metamorphosed into an energetic and flamboyant grassroots politician.
These days, she is criss-crossing the vast archipelago of 220 million people with a single-minded mission: to win precious votes.
She is kissing babies, mingling more with farmers and fishermen and labourers and dishing out funds from her huge war chest to woo the wong cilik or ‘little people’.
Ms Megawati is also fighting in the corridors of power.
She and her team have cobbled together a national coalition that includes two of the country’s largest parties – Golkar and her Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P).
After months in the doldrums, especially after PDI-P’s devastating defeat in the April legislative poll, the incumbent’s fortunes now appear to be rising.
She is making up ground. But has she left her run too late to thwart presidential favourite Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono?
Few would have considered such a question even possible last year, when there were no clear alternatives to her and everyone considered her a shoo-in for the presidency.
But closer to the April general election, her political star waned against the ascendant Bambang in that contest.
And after the parliamentary polls, she sank further behind him and another former general, Mr Wiranto. But having managed to scrape through to the second round of the presidential polls, she has begun to pick up momentum.
There is still a sizeable gap between Ms Megawati and Mr Bambang in opinion polls, but it is closing.
A recent survey carried out by the Indonesian Survey Institute, for example, showed her rating increase by seven percentage points to 30.3 per cent.
Her rival saw a fall from 68 to 61 per cent.
Another poll suggested an even closer margin between the two candidates.
The Jakarta-based Centre for Political Studies found that 41.3 per cent of some 5,000 respondents would vote for Mr Bambang, while 34.7 per cent were for Ms Megawati.
Polling is still in its infancy in Indonesia and has not been entirely accurate in the past.
But it has been a barometer of public approval in the country holding a historic direct presidential election.
Not surprisingly, these figures are fuelling confidence in the palace.
An aide to her influential husband Taufik Kiemas told The Straits Times: ‘There was a mental block in our camp before the first round. Can we clear it?
‘After beating Wiranto to enter the run-off, we are all a lot more hopeful of getting her into office again.’
That confidence is also rising for other reasons, the most important being the grand alliance of parties that includes political juggernauts Golkar and PDI-P.
This has always been ‘the dream team’ of her husband Taufik, given shared ideological bases.
The coalition assumes greater significance today because of the reach of these parties across the distended archipelago.
Ms Megawati’s party, torn apart by factional rifts, is hanging on to Golkar’s coat-tails.
Golkar has the best infrastructure and grassroots network in Indonesia today.
Party chairman Akbar Tandjung, like Ms Megawati, has been making whirlwind trips around the archipelago, meeting Golkar cadres to win their endorsement for the coalition.
In villages, Golkar is spreading the message: There will be ‘presents’ if the village head or lurah brings in votes for Ms Megawati and her deputy Hasyim Muzadi.
Those with the highest vote will get three cows, the second-placed will get two and the third, one.
Prizes will be awarded down to the 10th spot, which merits just a goat.
There are also ‘cash incentives’ for religious leaders in East Java and district heads who could be instrumental in swaying public opinion.
But Golkar’s relationship with PDI-P is not very smooth.
Golkar is split in its support for Ms Megawati.
And not all in PDI-P are in favour of a coalition that gives undue benefits to their rivals in terms of Cabinet positions and dominance in local legislatures.
But overall, sentiments in areas outside Java especially are turning in her favour.
For one thing, money is oiling the wheels of her campaign. The palace has a huge war chest.
The incumbent is also mobilising state resources – the bureaucracy, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and police – to do her bidding.
They were very effective in swinging votes to her in the first round.
Plantation workers in SOEs, for example, were asked to vote for Ms Megawati or risk being fired. In some areas, she took all the votes.
The police were also used to thwart any attempt by the armed forces to influence the electoral outcome.
They were deployed at polling stations throughout the vast archipelago to keep an eye on the electoral process – and significantly block out military elements backing former military commander Wiranto. She will do likewise against Mr Bambang.
The retired four-star general cannot rely on these resources to drive his campaign.
With election campaigning limited to just three days this week, the President as incumbent has had plenty of time to work the ground directly and through proxies like Golkar and the bureaucracy.
This is worrying her rival. The former general is holding the lead in opinion polls. But his popularity is slowly waning.
In part, it could be due to the efforts of major parties like Golkar to win over supporters with goodies.
Mr Bambang does not have a conventional party machinery to mount his campaign.
He relies on an informal network of volunteers and NGOs to do that for him together with his small Democratic Party and the increasingly influential Prosperous Justice Party.
His election team has long capitalised on his image to score points.
There is a view, even within his camp, that ‘he might have peaked too soon’ in the race.
One of his aides disclosed: ‘He seems to have lost some momentum. After the general election, his popularity was very high and we thought he would win the presidential election in the first round.
‘But his ratings have been sliding ever since because Megawati has been more in the public eye. Bambang seems to have kept a lower profile.’
Mr Bambang has also encountered criticism of his deputy Jusuf Kalla, whose blunt views on economic policies and favouring of the pribumis have upset the ethnic Chinese.
Against this backdrop, well-placed sources said there are signs that ties between the Bambang and Jusuf campaign teams are ‘not so harmonious’.
But the Bambang Bubble is still being held aloft by the mood for change in Indonesia.
He is seen as that symbol for change. Golkar deputy chairman Marzuki Darusman said: ‘He appeals to a wide section of the population. He does not need any machinery.
‘His biggest asset is his clean image.’
The key for both candidates now is to win over the undecided voters.
A recent survey in the country’s leading daily Kompas indicated that this could be as high as 20 per cent of the electorate.
Where will they go? Last Thursday’s terrorist bombing in the capital might have a bearing.
Indonesians are concerned about unemployment, rising costs and corruption, but the latest attack in the heart of the nation’s business district only reinforces the mood for a military strongman to restore law and order.
The President might have scored over her challenger by being first at the site of the bomb blast and visiting victims in hospital – cutting short her trip to Brunei, where she was attending the royal wedding of the Crown Prince.
But the thinking, even among some in her camp, is that the third terrorist attack in Indonesia under her watch could cost her some votes.
Having lost her commanding position as front runner, Ms Megawati is now rushing to regain lost ground against her opponent. But many think that she might not be able to do enough in time for next week’s poll.