Megawati Sukarnoputri

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Megawati Sukarnoputri

Megawati Sukarnoputri (born 1947) became vice president of Indonesia, the world's fourth-most-populous nation. This occurred in 1999, after a tumultuous time in her country's political affairs.

In 1998, Indonesians rioted and looted as they demanded new leadership. President Suharto had pilfered money from state coffers, placing him among the wealthiest people in the world. Suharto had originally risen to leadership in the late 1960s after Megawati's father, Sukarno, the first leader of independent Indonesia, was forced out. During this time, Suharto maintained a tight grip on power with his ruling party, Golkar. The citizenry did not rebel because he helped pull his nation out of poverty with oil sales. When the economy flagged in the 1980s and the Asian economic crisis hit in the 1990s, though, his days were numbered. After Suharto resigned, he named Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, a close ally for over three decades, as his successor. Amid further protests, Habibie agreed to hold open, multiparty elections in 1999.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Megawati had risen to become leader of the opposition party, the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). Her popularity, in addition to the financial situation, helped destabilized the Suharto regime. Entering politics in middle age, she was often described as "matronly," and many outside observers questioned her ability to become a world leader, especially since she lacked political experience. Her lack of outspokenness on issues and her quiet nature were sometimes read as serenity, but others saw these qualities as signs of being uneducated, unprepared, and uninteresting. By the mid-1990s, however, Megawati had garnered a great deal of support, enough to worry Suharto that her party could pose a serious threat to his control. He banished her from politics. After his downfall, however, she rose again and became the front-runner for the presidency. Although the office went to a rival party leader after a startling vote in the national assembly, parliament voted her in as vice president in October 1999.

Early Years

Megawati Sukarnoputri (pronounced meg-ah-WAH-tee soo-kar-no-POO-tree) was born in 1947, the second of five children of Sukarno, the founder and president of independent Indonesia, and his first wife, Fatmawati. (He had three other children by three more wives.) "Sukarnoputri," literally translated, means "daughter of Sukarno," but many Indonesians, including her, use only their first name. Sukarno led the drive to secure independence from the Netherlands and became Indonesia's first president under home rule in 1949. As such, Megawati grew up in the posh Merdeka Palace until her father's downfall. As the nation is composed of more than 13,000 islands, maintaining centralized control was difficult, so Sukarno imposed martial law. Famines, runaway inflation, and near-economic collapse marred his leadership. Following a coup attempt in 1965, Sukarno became even more unpopular, and the stage was set for his rival, General Suharto, to take power in 1967. Sukarno remained a heroic figure for his historical contributions, however, and there are still many signs of respect for him in the country.

Despite his political prominence, Sukarno left little wealth when he died in 1970. Megawati lived modestly throughout her life, adding to her image as a champion of the poor. Although she attended Padjadjaran University in Bandung, Indonesia, studying agriculture and psychology, she left without graduating after the coup attempt; a friend told Mark McDonald of the Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service, "No children of Sukarno were allowed to go to university. They had no money, no education, no jobs. The family was so poor then." Megawati settled into a middle-class lifestyle of marriage and children. She married an Indonesian Air Force pilot in the late 1960s and had two sons; she was pregnant with their daughter when her husband's plane crashed. She later married again, but was divorced quickly, and the relationship has remained a mystery.

Megawati's third husband, Taufiq Kiemas, owns and operates several gas stations in Jakarta, where they have a nice but not ostentatious home in a well-guarded area of the city. He ran for parliament from southern Sumatra, and encouraged his wife to become involved in politics as well. Though she and her siblings vowed not to seek office while Suharto was alive, Megawati's oldest brother, Guntur, a photographer, and younger brother, Guruh, a choreographer, both held seats in parliament briefly. Also, sisters Guruh and Rachmawati ran for parliament in 1999. Nevertheless, Megawati's brother Guntur told McDonald, "We are not cut out for politics. It's Mega who has staying power. She has guts."

Elected to Parliament

Still, nothing in Megawati's background demonstrated her readiness for the political arena. In 1979, she opened a flower shop with three friends, selling arrangements to upscale hotels and donating the proceeds to a foundation for poor children. Besides that, her background was as a homemaker. With encouragement from her husband, though, she won a seat in parliament in 1987, joining the original Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), a blending of nationalist and Christian parties. Though she was often criticized for her lack of participation, she was named leader of PDI in 1993.

While Megawati at that point denied any interest in challenging Suharto's power structure, many in her country as well as international observers saw her as having the potential to shake up the regime. Suharto only allowed two opposition parties to exist-the PDI and the Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP)-in order to give a slight nod toward democracy so as to appease the masses. Even then, they were forbidden from campaigning outside towns. Under Megawati, though, the PDI began to show an unprecedented increase in support as she spoke out against nepotism and the growing schism between the working class and ultra-wealthy. Thus, the Suharto government orchestrated a coup within her party in June 1996 that placed a former Golkar member, Sujadi, in her place.

That same month, a demonstration in favor of Megawati ended in violence as protestors chanting "Mega! Mega! Mega!" clashed with government troops. Many PDI regional offices continued to support Megawati, but the government cracked down on them, too, forcing out her supporters at PDI headquarters in July 1996. This caused more riots. Four people were killed, and the government reported that 171 were arrested, though Megawati claimed the number was closer to 250. Meanwhile, she denounced the violence, and staunchly insisted she had no intentions of challenging Suharto's leadership. Some predicted that, since his five-year term in office would end in 1998, and because his health seemed to decline after the unexpected death of his wife in 1996, Megawati would try to assume the presidency. However, she was only eligible to run as chair of one of the three major parties. By deposing her, the government ended her chances as a possible candidate. Despite her vocal statements against seeking the country's highest office, she did go to court to seek reinstatement in her position as PDI chair. She was becoming an icon for those dissatisfied with the current system.

Observers assumed that Suharto would find a way to transfer power to his family or a strong nationalist figure from the military if he stepped down. Democracy was still just an empty concept in a land where gatherings of more than five people for the purpose of discussing political issues were banned, and where the press was highly censored. Others mused that Megawati might not be able to muster enough support from the fledgling middle class even if running for president did become viable. Yet many Indonesians began comparing her to the Philippines' Corazon Aquino, who led the "People Power" effort to force Ferdinand Marcos out of power. They also compared her to Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan.

Suharto continued to harass Megawati. Her name was left off the list of parliamentary candidates up for election in 1997. When she tried to get back on the election list by offering her name, as well as names of supporters, on a separate "Megawati slate," she was denied. Undaunted, she expected that popular protest would help her return to parliament. If not, she remained a rallying point for those calling for change. As she noted to Keith B. Richburg in the Washington Post, "In our culture, there is not only a formal leader. There is also an informal leader. Sometimes the informal leader can be more powerful than the formal leader. You can see how my father, even though he has already passed away, in spirit still lives inside the Indonesian people."

In May 1997, the Golkar captured the majority of votes. Suharto was reelected and Megawati was excluded from elections. This only served to strengthen her position, and by 1998, she was calling for the president to step down. Further rioting, looting, and deadly violence led Golkar to vote Suharto out of office. After his resignation in May 1998, his political ally, Habibie took the office of president but promised free elections in 1999. Subsequently, Megawati formed a new branch of the PDI called the PDI-P, or Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle.

Presidential Candidate

In June 1999, elections were held for the Indonesian legislators, and candidates for president were in place. They included Megawati, Habibie, Rais, and Wahid. Megawati was undoubtedly popular, yet widely criticized for her soft-spoken manner. Habibie tried to distance himself from his predecessor, Suharto. Amien Rais of the National Mandate Party (PAN), was a charismatic supporter of student protests. Abdurrahman Wahid, also known as Gus Dur, was the driving force behind the National Awakening Party (PKB) and a leader of the largest Muslim group in Indonesia.

Despite Megawati's high profile, her bid for the presidency came under fire because of her gender. In the largest Islamic nation in the world-90 percent of Indonesia's 200 million inhabitants are Muslim-her opponents claimed that she should not be elected because of her gender. Although Islamic law does not prohibit a woman from leading the country, and religion is not seen as having nearly as much clout as politics in the nation, some were trying to stir public sentiment against the concept. Although Megawati was a practicing Muslim, some were suspicious of how much of an adherent she was, due to her wide support from non-Muslims. Other issues included her three marriages and her lack of a formal degree.

In June elections, the PDI-P party garnered 153 of the 462 seats (out of a total of 700), a good deal more than Golkar's 120 positions. Megawati thus seemed assured of the presidency. However, an electoral college from the House of Representatives, selects the president, and Megawati needed a coalition to ensure her seat. From June to October she seemed unwilling to forge integral ties with rival parties. A former cabinet minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, told Seth Mydans of the New York Times that if Megawati lost the election, "the country [would] be thrown into total chaos-total civil chaos." By this time, she not only had the backing of the poor, but also the elite classes, who saw her as being good for the business climate. And as Mydans reported in another New York Times article, "Many people have made their voices heard in continuing mass rallies and in outbursts of violence."

Hours before the assembly vote was scheduled in October 1999, the Golkar party humiliated Habibie by replacing him as a presidential candidate with party chair, Akbar Tanjung, the speaker of the parliament. This change did not make a difference, though. In a surprise shift in support, the assembly voted in Wahid, the Muslim leader respected for his teachings on tolerance and self-respect. The vote was 373 for Wahid, 313 for Megawati, and five abstentions. As predicted, there were outbursts of violence, but not nearly as bad as expected. Megawati appeared on television holding Wahid's hand, and she commented, according to Mydans, "For the unity of the nation I call on the people of Indonesia to accept the results of the election."

Though some supporters wept and others rioted after Megawati's defeat, the next day, parliament voted her in to the post of vice president. This was an important gesture and helped bring stability to the troubled nation. With Megawati as vice president, Mydans indicated that her party might be more willing to work with Wahid. He also noted, "Their cooperation may be enhanced by the fact that the President is in poor health and, should he die, Ms. Megawati may yet have the chance to take over the presidency before his five-year term is up."

Further Reading

Business Week, June 21, 1999, p. 52.

Dallas Morning News, September 8, 1996.

Economist, April 8, 1995; June 29, 1996; June 29, 1996; August 3, 1996; September 21, 1996; October 17, 1998; June 26, 1999.

Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, June 7, 1999; June 17, 1999.

Maclean's, August 19, 1996, p. 30.

Newsweek, August 26, 1996, p. 41.

New York Times, August 4, 1996; June 20, 1999; September 27, 1999; October 6, 1999; October 15, 1999; October 18, 1999; October 19, 1999; October 20, 1999; October 21, 1999; October 22, 1999; October 23, 1999.

Time International, August 12, 1996; August 12, 1996; October 12, 1998; June 7, 1999; July 26, 1999.

Vogue, April 1998, p. 246.

Washington Post, September 20, 1996. □