News / Asia

Three Times a Loser, Indonesia's Megawati Pivotal in Elections

FILE - Michelle Obama (l) toasts former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, during a state dinner at the Istana Negara in Jakarta, Nov. 9, 2010.
FILE - Michelle Obama (l) toasts former Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, during a state dinner at the Istana Negara in Jakarta, Nov. 9, 2010.
Reuters
As Indonesia gears up for twin elections this year, the pivotal figure is a woman in her late sixties who has been trounced all three times that she has contested for president.
 
Megawati Sukarnoputri dominates the opposition party that opinion polls show is likely to top the April 9 parliamentary election. She also has, if she chooses, the candidate whom polls show would sweep aside all other contenders in the presidential election three months later.
 
But the 67-year-old daughter of the country's founding president is said to want the top job herself, although the chances of her winning it are slim.
 
It's a dilemma that has brought uncertainty over who will lead Southeast Asia's largest economy and the nation with the world's biggest Muslim population when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono retires in October.
 
Senior officials in Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) insisted they did not know what her final decision would be.
 
“It ultimately comes down to her, no matter what anybody feels within the party,” said one insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
 
“Whatever Ibu Mega decides, so goes the party,” the source said, using her popular name.
 
Megawati is famously enigmatic. When she filled in as the country's first woman president from 2001-2004, her term was criticized for indecisiveness.
 
A decision on the PDI-P's presidential candidate is likely to be only after April's legislative election and could be taken as late as mid-May.
 
Indonesia follows a presidential form of government, although power is shared with parliament. Only parties which win 25 percent of the vote or 20 percent of the 560 seats in the parliamentary poll will be permitted to name candidates for the July presidential election. PDI-P and perhaps just one or two other parties are likely to qualify.
 
If the public had a say in the nomination, it would be for Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, a member of PDI-P who is currently the popular governor of the capital Jakarta.
 
The frontrunner in opinion polls by a wide margin, he is widely seen as representing change in the world's third-largest democracy: a young, clean and competent operator in a system dominated by an aging, often corrupt elite.
 
But first, he will have to win the endorsement of his party chief.
 
Loyal base
 
As the scion of Indonesia's charismatic founding father Sukarno, Megawati has headed a loyal and growing base of supporters through a decade in opposition.
 
She has never actually won a presidential election. But she was vice president in 2001 when parliament ousted Abdurrahman Wahid, the man elected president by the legislature in 1999, and installed her in his place. She remained in office for three years.
 
She then lost Indonesia's first direct presidential election to Yudhoyono in 2004, and again to him in 2009.
 
Megawati grew up in the Istana Merdeka presidential palace in Jakarta during her father's long rule and dropped out of university to be with him after his fall from grace in 1965.
 
As strongman Suharto took power, the Sukarno family was pushed to the margins of political and social life. Sukarno died in 1970.
 
Megawati became a symbol of opposition in the over three decades Suharto was in power and went on to win a following in Indonesia's political turbulence of the late 1990s. She formed the current PDI-P soon after Suharto was forced to step down in 1998.
 
But she was never able to reproduce her father's popularity, and analysts say that if she does still dream of winning the presidency and creating an enduring Sukarno family legacy, this will be her last chance.
 
“She has a legacy to live up to and there's a part of her that thinks she belongs back in that presidential palace,” said Douglas Ramage, political analyst at Bower Group Asia consultancy.
 
However, opinion polls suggest she would struggle to beat off likely challengers from other parties: tycoon Aburizal Bakrie and Prabowo Subianto, an ex-general with a dark human rights record.
 
A legacy
 
At the rank and file level of the party, however, Megawati enjoys the support of thousands of self-proclaimed loyalists who believe that the ability to lead the country runs in her blood.
 
“As a Javanese I believe in natural and mystical forces and so I believe the spirit of Bung Karno still protects our nation,” said 40-year-old Dewi Kriswindari, using Sukarno's nickname amidst a murmur of prayer by his grave in Blitar in East Java province, one of the party's traditional strongholds.
 
“I'm not very political, but Megawati is his daughter and I believe she can guide Indonesia as a leader.”
 
Party insiders say Megawati and the party's aging senior leadership take this legacy very seriously - not least because they could lose influence if she goes.
 
The death last year of Megawati's husband Taufik Kiemas, whom she recently called her “sparring partner”, meant perhaps the only other prominent and counterbalancing voice in the party is gone, giving her supporters ample room to urge Megawati to run for president again.
 
Nevertheless, a growing chorus of voices within the party has called on her to instead take on the role of 'Mother of the Nation' to echo her father's legacy and, considering her consistently low popularity ratings, let Jokowi run for the presidency.
 
“The people want a new figure, and that's Jokowi,” said Ali Husein, a PDI-P legislative candidate from Bangka Belitung province who co-chairs a group promoting the Jakarta governor's candidacy.
 
“I don't think the PDI-P would be stupid enough for Mega to be the candidate.”
 
In a recent live television interview, she walked out on stage to Frank Sinatra's “My Way” and sat silently or gave typically vague answers as Jokowi watched from the audience.
 
When asked the inevitable question about the candidacy, Megawati's answer was ambivalent.
 
“Leaders of the party don't have to be directly related to Sukarno,” she said, “But I tell them to remember that there are still many loyal followers of Bung Karno.”

You May Like

Turbulent Transition Imperils Tunisia’s Arab Spring Gains

Critics say new anti-terrorism laws worsen Tunisia's situation while others put faith in country’s vibrant civil organizations, women’s movement More

Burundi’s Political Crisis May Become Humanitarian One

United Nations aid agencies issue warning as deadly violence sends tens of thousands fleeing More

Yemenis Adjust to Life Under Houthi Rule

Locals want warring parties to strike deal to stop bloodletting before deciding how country is governed More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threati
X
Greg Flakus
May 29, 2015 11:24 PM
Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threat

Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video New York's One World Trade Center Observatory Opens to Public

From New Jersey to Long Island, from Northern suburbs to the Atlantic Ocean, with all of New York City in-between.  That view became available to the public Friday as the One World Trade Center Observatory opened in New York -- atop the replacement for the buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks.  VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs