Mon, 24 Apr 2000

Regent Rustri to build democracy with a smile

By Agus Maryono

KEBUMEN, Central Java (JP): "Building democracy with a smile" is probably the sweetest promise that Rustriningsih made when she won a regent race in this male dominated territory on March 15.

"I will always encourage Kebumen residents to adhere to the principles of democracy and reject violence," she said in a recent interview at the local headquarters of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) that she leads.

Thousands of her triumphant supporters paraded in the streets in jubilation for her stunning victory. With Nasiruddin from the National Awakening Party as her running mate, she won 17 of the 45 votes. Her closest rival, Rahardjo Muhror from the Indonesian Democratic Party (PPP) obtained 12 votes.

Rustri, who was born in Gombong subdistrict, Kebumen regency, on July 3, 1967, said with a shy smile that she wanted to marry soon. "I hope I have the man of my choice to marry this year."

She has always been an adamant supporter of PDI-P since the party was still in its infancy. PDI-P, under Megawati Soekarnoputri, lost New Order government favor and its activists like Rustri were subject to intimidation. The Soeharto government recognized the PDI of Soerjadi, Megawati's arch rival.

Her victory has been attributed to her consistency in her fight for democracy. She has never bowed to political pressure.

Ahead of the race for the regency top job, her Moslem political foes unsuccessfully used the gender issue to thwart her campaign. About 98 percent of the regency population, including Rustri, are Muslim.

The more orthodox Muslims insisted that women could not become political leaders. It was Nasiruddin who helped her out of the gender trick.

Rustriningsih, the eighth child of Sukamto and Sumarsih, started her career in PDI-P not long ago. Her father was formerly an activist of the Indonesian National Party (PNI) in Kebumen.

Rustri is the first woman regent in modern Indonesian history. Central Java Governor Mardiyanto said she is the fruit of the struggle of the nation's women for emancipation lead by heroine RA Kartini.

"We should be very proud of her," he said after installing her.

Rustri started her political activities as a student at the school of sociopolitical sciences at General Soedirman University in Purwokerto. Then she became a member of PDI in the Kebumen branch office.

She intensified her activity after graduation in 1991, and in 1994 she became deputy-secretary of the local PDI branch. When PDI broke up in 1996, she remained loyal to Megawati and joined the PDI-P.

She recalled the fear of the repressive New Order government. At one time she was banned from holding a meeting because PDI-P was not recognized by the government. That taught her a lot about the meaning of democracy.

Her hard work bore fruit. In the 1997 general election, PDI-P won 16 of the 45 contested seats in Kebumen. The victory surprised many because Kebumen is known as a Muslim stronghold.

"I am thankful for their eventual support," Rustri said.

Her success won her a seat in the House of Representatives (DPR) in Jakarta, but she now must resign from the House after being elected regent.

Wooing investors to Kebumen is high on her agenda. Currently, agriculture contributes 60 percent of its revenues.

Rustri means to work closely with local Muslim groups although many of those are not happy with her election. "The key is democracy and togetherness."

The new regent is given much credit for her proven respect for plurality. When a wave of anti-Chinese riots hit major cities in Indonesia in 1998, she mobilized party members to prevent the violence from happening in Kebumen.