“Benazir” Takes Over in Indonesia


The world’s largest Muslim country, Indonesia, put a woman in charge of its 210 million people. In the continuing saga of intrigue and politics that have enveloped the nation of 16,000 islands since the fall of Suharto, Megawati Sukarnoputri outmaneuvered other rivals and captured the Presidency.

“Mega”, as she is known to many in Indonesia, is the daughter of Sukarno, the nationalist who led Indonesia to independence but was deposed by General Suharto in 1965. Suharto led Indonesia as a dictator for the next 33 years, transforming the desperately poor land into a “Newly Industrializing Country”, as the per capita income reached almost 1000 dollars (Pakistan’s is around 475 dollars). Much of the economy came to be dominated by cronies of Suharto, and ethnic Chinese businessmen were very prominent. This led to resentment among the Muslim Malay majority. When the East Asian currency crisis hit in 1997, Indonesia was among the worst affected, with a huge drop in the economy, and race riots in the major cities as ethnic Chinese were targeted by gangs.

Suharto lost legitimacy, as he was unable to manage the crisis effectively, and was forced from government by street demonstrations in 1998, ending a long era of dictatorial rule. Later that year elections were held. Mega’s party got the most votes and captured a dominant bloc of seats in the National Assembly. Mega assumed she would be President, which is a position filled by vote of the Assembly. At this point, the Muslim political groups blocked her. Hamzah Haz, a leader of one of the conservative Muslim parties, and a man with two wives and twelve children, spearheaded a campaign to deny Mega power on the basis that a woman was unfit to lead from an Islamic viewpoint. In the end, the Presidency was given to Abdurrahman Wahid, whose party had won far less votes than Mega’s. Wahid was head of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization with 30 million members mostly from villages.

Wahid is a relatively mild-mannered fellow, but has the distinction of being the sickest head of state in the world. When he assumed office he was almost totally blind as a result of two previous strokes and suffered from severe high blood pressure. At a time when Indonesia needed energetic and visionary leadership, they certainly picked an odd choice. Mega had to settle for the Vice-Presidency.

Wahid was initially hailed as a possible savior, as Indonesia was suffering from severe economic, political, and cultural stress. However, his Presidency was marred by erratic behavior, and an uncanny ability to never make a decision. Violent separatist movements flared in many of the outlying islands, including a murderous group of headhunters in Kalimantan. Religious violence, especially between Muslims and Christians in the Moluccas, became intense. Wahid then came under suspicion of corruption and the National Assembly began impeachment proceedings on the grounds of incompetence and corruption. Wahid officially suspended the Assembly, but they met anyway and voted him out of office by a margin of 591-0. In his place was put Megawati, with the active support of Hamzah Haz and the Islamic parties. In return, Haz was made Vice-President. A strange twist indeed.

Unfortunately, although Mega is happy to be back in the Presidential Palace that she was ousted from with her father in 1965, it’s not so clear how good this is for Indonesia. Mega reminds me much of Benazir. Both are daughters of deposed leaders with a deep sense of entitlement on a hereditary basis. Benazir was rather incompetent at actually running a country, and Mega seems to be no better. She has no college education, has never run anything other than her political party, and seems rather intellectually limited. She rarely makes public speeches or grants interviews. When the Assembly was heading to its denouement with Wahid last weekend, she took her daughters to go see the movie “Shrek”.

Megawati now makes Indonesia the fourth Muslim nation to have made a female head of state, joining Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Turkey. With the exception of Turkey, all the women were thrust into political prominence by their family connections. While it seems clear that even conservative Muslim countries will elect women, the women put in the top job so far have not fared well. These women for the most part were not agenda driven, in the sense that they had a program or set of policies they wanted to implement. Instead, they were driven by a sense of family entitlement to rule, which gave them a leg up into politics but made them ill-suited to run the country once they achieved the top spot. Megawati will likely be a bad experience for Indonesia.