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Reticent Indonesia Leader to Put Her Style to a Vote

A campaign official for President Megawati says the nation doesn't need another strongman.

September 19, 2004|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — President Megawati Sukarnoputri is not trying to be a strong leader -- and it shows.

She avoids interviews, disdains news conferences and declines invitations to debate. Her public appearances are carefully scripted to avoid putting her on the spot. She has no presidential spokesperson. Her supporters call her "introspective." She calls herself an "ordinary housewife."

Soon, Megawati will find out whether her detached style of leadership works in a democratic Indonesia. Voters will go to the polls Monday to cast their ballots in the deciding round of the country's first direct presidential election.

Megawati, who placed second with 26% of the vote in the first round in July, is facing an uphill fight to defeat her former security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Two surveys released last week show the retired general with the support of 61% of the voters and Megawati with less than 33%.

During the election season, Megawati has tried to come out of her shell -- she held her first solo presidential news conference in May just before she declared her candidacy -- and she hired a campaign spokeswoman. But her inability to articulate a clear message may hamstring her candidacy.

"She is painfully insecure in front of cameras and audiences," said Jeffrey Winters, a Northwestern University professor who has known her since her days as an opposition figure. "It scares her because she is not firm on the issues, and she knows her answers are not going to fit the questions. It's as if the best way to preserve her presidentiality is to keep quiet."

Megawati's supporters say she deserves credit for restoring a measure of stability to the country, helping the battered economy recover and supporting democratic principles. But they acknowledge that her administration has not communicated well with the public.

"Yes, she does not run like the cheetah. Yes, she does not appear like a peacock," said the campaign spokeswoman, Irma Hutabarat. "But she makes things happen. She has brought this country from instability to stability, from a not democratic system to a very democratic system."

Most agree that Indonesia -- the world's fourth-most-populous country -- is more stable than it was three years ago when Megawati took over. But she has done little to resolve some of the country's most pressing problems -- pervasive government corruption, 40 million unemployed, widespread illegal logging of the rainforest, and separatist movements in the outlying provinces.

Three of Southeast Asia's worst terrorist attacks have occurred during her tenure, including the Bali nightclub blasts in 2002 that killed 202 people and a suicide car bombing Sept. 9 at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, the capital, that killed nine. The bombings have been blamed on Jemaah Islamiah, a regional terrorist group that has close ties to the Al Qaeda network.

To the president's credit, the police have vigorously pursued the bombers and nearly 50 people have been convicted in connection with the Bali bombings and an attack in Jakarta last year on the JW Marriott Hotel, which killed 12 people. But analysts say hundreds of terrorists who trained in Afghanistan and the Philippines remain on the loose.

Last week, Megawati took part in a rare televised "dialogue" with Yudhoyono, sometimes rambling in her answers to questions from a panel of academics.

Asked how she would prevent attacks -- as well as defend government pronouncements that the country is safe -- the president replied:

"I can say that we are practically safe at the moment, because after the bomb, the situation of trading etc. did not undergo any chaos. The market goes well as usual. If we talk about the problem of terrorism, terrorism can happen anywhere."

In politics, Megawati has relied heavily on her family legacy. Her father was Sukarno, the country's late founding president, an ardent nationalist and a fiery orator who challenged the West and is still beloved by many in Indonesia. He was shoved aside in 1965 by Suharto, one of his generals. The autocratic Suharto ruled the country for more than 32 years until he was forced to step down in 1998 in the face of mass protests.

Megawati, an opposition symbol during the Suharto era, expected to be chosen president by the 700-member national assembly after Suharto fell but was outmaneuvered by Abdurrahman Wahid, a nearly blind cleric. The memory may be one factor in her support now for a direct election. Chosen as vice president, Megawati ascended to the presidency in 2001 when Wahid was removed for incompetence.

Although she lacks her father's skill as a public speaker, Megawati has long campaigned on the Sukarno family name. Her frequent visits to his grave in the remote Java village of Blitar to speak with his spirit -- and allegedly get his advice -- have become well known.

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