Tue, 06 Mar 2001

A president-in-waiting

Megawati Soekarnoputri is looking more and more like the president-in-waiting today than she ever has before, since becoming vice president in October 1999. Under the nation's laws, the vice president will step into the number one job if something happens to the serving president. With President Abdurrahman Wahid facing mounting pressure to go one way or the other, many people here and abroad are already analyzing the prospect of Megawati becoming Indonesia's next ruler.

She has certainly been getting a lot of support where it counts most, including from her former detractors, who in 1999 conspired to deprive her of the presidency. The strongest message of support came on Friday when leaders of all major political parties met in Jakarta's Al Azhar grand mosque to discuss the likelihood of her ascendancy to power in the not too distant future.

"The people of this nation should prepare themselves to face another change of national leadership," People's Consultative Assembly chairman Amien Rais said after the meeting, which was also attended by leaders of Megawati's own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan), Golkar, the United Development Party (PPP), the Justice Party (PK), the Crescent Star Party (PBB) and Amien's own National Mandate Party (PAN).

Amien, as we may recall, led the campaign in 1999 that prevented Megawati from becoming the president, despite having won the general election with 35 percent of the vote, and secured the election of Abdurrahman, whose own National Awakening Party (PKB) only won 11 percent of votes in the elections.

The chief objection to Megawati becoming president at the time was because they argued that Indonesia was not ready for a female president. Things have obviously changed a lot since then for Amien and his friends, who are now leading the campaign to oust Gus Dur, to endorse her presidency today.

More important to the question of her likely ascension to power is her own position. For months, many people, even those from within her own PDI Perjuangan, have had to second-guess her position or intentions with regard to the presidency.

She, for example, allowed PDI Perjuangan to take the lead in the House of Representatives inquiry into allegations of impropriety by Gus Dur. But she was also the one who restrained the party, and hence the House where hers is the largest faction, from being too severe on the President.

She played an active behind-the-scenes role in ensuring that the memorandum issued by the House last month was decisive in reproaching the President but, at the same time, not too aggressive, allowing him some leeway to respond with dignity. Other factions, and some leading members of her PDI Perjuangan, had wanted to be harsher on the President.

A woman of few words, Megawati has had the unenviable task of threading between her duty of remaining loyal to President Abdurrahman, and her obligations as chairwoman of the country's largest political party. She continued to play second fiddle and never once publicly uttered contemptuous statements against him, even while the latter was struggling for political survival.

A decisive moment arrived last week when Megawati publicly distanced herself from the embattled Abdurrahman in a statement attributed to her by an executive of Muhammadiyah. The statement was circumspect, stating that, in her capacity as PDI Perjuangan chairwoman, neither she nor her party had supported Abdurrahman as president, but that as vice president, she was obliged to remain loyal to the elected president.

This statement was also the first clearest sign from Megawati that she is now ready to abandon President Abdurrahman. Other political leaders, including Amien Rais, took this as a sign that she was ready to assume the presidency.

The two most frequently asked questions about Megawati's presidential adequacy had been whether she was ready for it, and whether she had the capacity undertake the role. At least, the first question has now been settled, but the second is something that the nation will have to wait and see.

The message that Megawati conveyed to President Abdurrahman last week was that he could no longer take her loyalty and support for granted the way he has being doing these last few weeks. Because his own PKB has little support beyond its home base in East Java, Megawati's support, and automatically that of her PDI Perjuangan, is crucial if he is to have any chance of surviving the political storm at all.

Gus Dur's fate is very much in the hands of Megawati. The next few days or weeks will be a very crucial period for her as much as it is for him. By whatever befalls him, she will be affected.

Yet, the ball is very much in her court now. How she uses this power will be decisive in determining the fate of this country and its people. This is a momentous time for her to show "states(wo)manship" and wisdom. How she uses this power will also determine what kind of president she will be should she move into the palace.