Fri, 30 Nov 2001

Taufik and Mega: Battle of the brash and the bashful

Kornelius Purba, Staff Writer, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Before entering his limousine, Coordinating Minister for the Economy Dorodjatun Kuntjoro-Jakti sighed when asked about rumors of his resignation from the Cabinet.

The economic czar seemed fed up with queries about his supposedly imminent departure from the Cabinet and his apparently worsening relations with President Megawati Soekarnoputri. He preferred to reiterate his conviction that the nation would see the results of his economic program early next year.

"It's just rumors," he said after attending a Cabinet meeting last Friday at the State Secretariat.

A senior economist close to Dorodjatun said, however, that the minister had complained of his work often being disrupted by businessmen or former ministers claiming to be close to Megawati's husband, Taufik Kiemas.

Other ministers have also complained about what they see as attempts to interfere in their work, either by Taufik or by those who claim to be close to him.

Much is being said about how to deal with the First Gentleman (for want of a better word) while various parties continue to lobby Taufik to further their own interests. The rumors about Dorodjatun's resignation have also been attributed to Taufik or others around him.

Actually it was Taufik who strongly encouraged Megawati to select Dorodjatun for the Cabinet position. He was reportedly impressed with the track record of the former envoy to Washington, previously the dean of the School of Economics at the University of Indonesia.

One of Megawati's senior aides hinted that Rizal Ramli, former chief economic minister and finance minister under Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, was trying to regain a position in the Cabinet. Abdurrahman's former minister of industry and trade Lt.Gen. (ret.) Luhut Panjaitan is also reportedly busy approaching the President.

Rizal is lobbying Taufik following the cool reception he received from Megawati. The aide said Megawati still remembered how, despite her warning, Rizal, as outgoing finance minister, on July 31 signed a US$ 400 million settlement agreement with the U.S.-based Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to settle the dispute over the Dieng and Patuha power plants in Central Java and West Java.

Rizal's move went against Megawati's order to Abdurrahman's Cabinet members not to make major policy decisions during the period of political upheaval that culminated in Wahid's removal.

The aide, requesting anonymity, said, "Rizal continues to approach Taufik to help his comeback efforts. There are also strategies designed by certain people to discredit the Cabinet members for their own interests."

State/Cabinet Secretary Bambang Kesowo also looked calm when asked about the repeated calls from the executives of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) for the President to dismiss him. He also declined to comment on Taufik, who reportedly continues to campaign for Bambang's dismissal from his wife's inner circle.

Many PDI Perjuangan executives are working hard to press the President to include them in the Cabinet or at least in the Palace inner circle. They think it is time now for the party to harvest their victory -- and Bambang is in their way.

To close friends, Bambang has reportedly expressed regret that Taufik regards him as his "personal enemy". Taufik, he said, is upset with Bambang's frequent reluctance to meet his requests. Yet Bambang insists that it is the President herself who ordered him to block the requests of her husband and Taufik's close associates. Bambang will likely soon feel the heat as the President, under her shield of silence, is now considering taking his Cabinet secretary position from him.

While Megawati has so far succeeded in protecting her sons, M. Rizki Pratama, M. Prananda, and daughter Puan Maharani from publicity, many say Taufik is becoming a liability.

Taufik, also a legislator representing PDI Perjuangan, is regularly linked to reports on the promotion or sacking of military and civilian officials. His name is also linked to problematic conglomerates.

Some say Taufik should learn from Denis Thatcher, husband of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who, according to public records, was never involved in state affairs and never used his wife's position to further his personal interests.

Or, others say, he should follow in the footsteps of Jose Miguel "Mike" Arroyo, husband of the Philippines' President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who said he would relinquish all his business interests and concentrate on supporting his wife.

Economist Sjahrir, coordinator of the Association for a New Indonesia (PIB), recently said Taufik should resign as a legislator to avoid a conflict of interest.

Sjahrir said Taufik should learn from Hillary Clinton, who ran for the U.S. Senate last year only after Bill Clinton had nearly completed his presidential term, to avoid a conflict of interest. Yet Hillary was so dominant in the Clinton administration that there were calls for her inclusion in the Cabinet.

Either seriously or in jest, some say Megawati should divorce Taufik "for the sake of the nation."

However, a close look at the First Couple's history reveals that this is unlikely. She owes him much more than he owes her.

Megawati married businessman Taufik, her third husband, in March 1973. His family was a strong supporter of Megawati's father, first president Sukarno. Taufik was even once detained for his pro-Sukarno activities.

Megawati's first husband, Air Force First Lt. Surindro Supjarso, died when the Skyvan T-701 he was piloting crashed in Biak, Irian Jaya in 1970 not long after Sukarno's death in June that year. Megawati was left with their eldest son Rizki, while she was pregnant with Pranada.

Two years later she was briefly married to Egyptian diplomat Hassan Gamal Ahmad Hasan. However, the Jakarta Special Religious Court quickly annulled their marriage, saying that Surindro's death had not been officially declared by the Air Force,

Megawati gave Taufik their daughter Puan Maharani. Taufik loves his stepsons and treats them as well as he does Puan. Family friends recall that Taufik played a key role in supporting Sukarno's daughters financially. Soeharto was very strict with them, including limiting their sources of livelihood.

In the 1970s, then Jakarta governor Lt.Gen. Ali Sadikin, appointed by Sukarno, helped Megawati and her other siblings by allowing them to enter the gas station business.

In 1986, Taufik encouraged his wife to enter politics and they joined the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). He financed his wife's political activities from their gas station business. Megawati's presence significantly increased the party's seats in the 1987 general election and the couple were elected as legislators.

Following Megawati's election as party chairperson in 1996 and her skyrocketing popularity, on July 27 that year Soeharto ruthlessly ousted her from her position in a bloody incident at the party's headquarters in Central Jakarta. Taufik erected tents in front of the couple's home in Kebagusan, South Jakarta, and provided food and sometimes money for the supporters, who stayed there for weeks. He played a significant role in communicating with her supporters.

Megawati is fully aware of the public's view of her husband. Apart from her announcement that her family would not be engaged in business, she has changed the way she signs her name. Previously the name Kiemas could be easily read in her signature.

The public has got the message that she will not bow to the image that she is in the shadows of her husband. The First Couple's history reveals that any speculation about their separation is unlikely to be borne out. Therefore the remaining problem is how Megawati can remain aware of Taufik's position, which the public believes has the potential to lead to a conflict of interest.