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Indonesian 'Housewife' Has Major Cleanup Job

Politics: New President Megawati Sukarnoputri relies on low-key style.

July 25, 2001|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Critics of Megawati Sukarnoputri like to say she is merely a housewife with a famous name who enjoys gardening, shopping and watching cartoons. When she served as vice president, then-President Abdurrahman Wahid publicly called her "stupid." Other detractors dubbed her "Miniwati."

But today her foes are calling her something else: president.

Megawati, 54, the quiet, matronly daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, was sworn in Monday as the nation's fifth head of state. A child of privilege who grew up in the presidential palace, she survived political persecution under military dictator Suharto and defied the odds to become the first woman to lead this predominantly Muslim nation.

"It appears that I am considered to be a housewife," she said in a television interview last month. "I say to those people who belittle housewives: What's wrong with that? It doesn't mean a housewife doesn't understand politics."

With her low-key style and guarded silence, the enigmatic Megawati has managed to become the most popular politician in Indonesia today. And despite resistance to the idea of a woman president, she won the overwhelming support of the 700-member People's Consultative Assembly on Monday after it removed Wahid from office.

Now Megawati must find a way to address the intractable problems of the world's fourth-most-populous nation: huge government debt, massive unemployment, rampant lawlessness, widespread environmental destruction and brutal separatist and religious wars.

"We don't need somebody who is a genius," said Eros Djarot, Megawati's former political advisor and a friend from childhood. "We need somebody who is humble enough to be a good manager. We need a president who can work together in teamwork, who can listen to other people."

A Political Survivor

Among those who know her, Megawati has gained a reputation as a good listener and sharp questioner. Shrewd and secretive, supporters say, she is hesitant to trust people, a tendency reinforced during years of operating under the Suharto dictatorship.

She makes decisions slowly and carefully--too slowly, some say--but she does not reverse herself once she has made up her mind.

"I think she is not a dim bulb," said Jeffrey Winters, a professor at Northwestern University and an Indonesia expert who has known Megawati for a decade. "Indonesia's political scene is particularly treacherous. It is not easy to survive, much less thrive. She has shown herself to be a survivor. For the Indonesian context, she has a sophisticated political instinct."

The new president likes operating in an arena where rivals underrate her. "If your foes are constantly underestimating you, that's good," a friend quoted her as saying after her inauguration.

Sometimes, however, she seems to go out of her way to create the impression that she is a lightweight.

On Sunday night as Wahid prepared to issue an emergency decree "freezing" the People's Consultative Assembly, Megawati and family members went to the movies to see the animated film "Shrek." They took over an entire theater because of security concerns.

Friends say she is a great fan of Walt Disney's animated films, particularly "Beauty and the Beast," and that she likes to watch cartoons on television with her grandchildren.

Some Westerners are baffled that she could become president without ever stating what policies she would pursue and only rarely giving interviews or making speeches.

But that, analysts say, is the nature of Indonesian politics.

"In Indonesia, if you were to blow your own trumpet, nobody would vote for you," said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a former top aide to Wahid's predecessor, B.J. Habibie. "American politicians would do very badly in Indonesia, and Indonesian politicians would do very badly in the United States."

She likes to be called ibu, or mother, and styles herself as the Mother of the Nation.

As president, Megawati may find that she will need to become more open. Even those close to her acknowledge that her greatest weakness is her lack of communication.

One effective, if byzantine, technique she has honed is to create as many as six separate advisory groups to perform the same function. She lets each group think it is her only source of information, then takes the best ideas from each one.

"This woman is extremely calculating," said one insider. "Her idea is to string a lot of people along, take what she can get and have them think they are at the absolute epicenter."

Megawati is one of eight children born to Sukarno and his many wives, who, according to different sources, numbered between five and nine. In his memoirs, Sukarno described her birth during a horrific tropical downpour.

"Suddenly the lights went out, the roof caved in, the dark, swollen clouds opened and water rained in like a river," he wrote. "My wife was soaked, as were the [medical] instruments, bedclothes, everything. In the darkness, by the light of a candle, our daughter was born."

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