Megawati's Second Chance

A Wahid impeachment could give her the presidency

Fifteen months ago, Megawati Sukar-noputri complained of being cheated of Indonesia's presidency by an indirect electoral system and Islamic clerics who claimed women could not lead. Now the popular Megawati, whose consolation prize was the vice-presidency, has a new shot at power. President Abdurrahman Wahid faces possible impeachment on two corruption charges, plus the withdrawal of support by the coalition of parties that elected him in October, 1999. If Megawati makes the right moves, she'll have a chance to run for the presidency again in less than six months. And she'll have a stronger chance of winning this time.

Megawati is playing her hand carefully. While not publicly calling for Wahid's resignation, she is working quietly behind the scenes to build the political support necessary to succeed him. In late January, sources say she and her aides began meeting privately with key Muslim leaders and army generals who are eager for Wahid to resign. And then on Feb. 5, leaders of her Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party met with leaders of the eight Islamic parties that form Wahid's Central Axis coalition to discuss possible ways to rush ahead with a snap presidential election before the unwieldy impeachment process is over. Among the party leaders was Amien Rais, speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly, the body responsible for electing the President. He is backing Megawati.

ADRIFT. Indonesia's important political players are holding out a simple offer to the Vice-President, says a Parliament member from her party: If she assumes the presidency and reshuffles the cabinet so that they get key ministerial posts, they'll let her rule until the end of Wahid's presidential term in October, 2004. To ensure support, Megawati would have to shelve complaints against generals over human rights abuses in Aceh, East Timor, and West Papua. And she would have to agree to at least consider the demands of Muslim leaders who want Indonesia --a secular country with a nearly 90% Muslim population--to become an Islamic state.

That's a tricky challenge for Megawati. But if she can strike the right balance and avoid giving too much away to the clerics, she could win support from Asian neighbors such as Singapore, which fears the rise of an Islamic state. Since Megawati's is the only secular party represented in Parliament, many prefer her as leader--even though they question her policymaking skills.

Timing may be crucial. As Indonesia drifts under Wahid, violence is threatening to spiral out of control in Aceh and West Papua, where secessionist rebels are waging civil war against the Indonesian army. And on Jan. 31, the World Bank cut its annual disbursement to Indonesia by $800 million, to just $400 million, citing the government's failure to implement reform.

Wahid has three months to respond to Parliament. It censured him on Feb. 1 for allegedly allowing his masseuse to embezzle $3.7 million from a government agency. Wahid is also accused of pocketing a $2 million gift from Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei that was intended for civil war refugees. If the Parliament isn't satisfied with Wahid's response--or if he fails to respond after repeated censures--Parliament can call a special session of the People's Consultative Assembly, which can hold a snap presidential election.

But Megawati may not be able to make her move yet, because Wahid is fighting back fiercely. Striking at the only person known to have told him face-to-face to go, Wahid fired Justice Minister Yusril Mahendra on Feb. 7. While protesting his innocence, Wahid has assembled a large legal team to fight impeachment. He is also calling on support from Banser, a paramilitary army linked to Nahdlatul Ulama, a 34 million-member Islamic organization that he led until his election. Banser troops from Wahid's stronghold in East Java have been attacking the offices of Central Axis parties in cities in the eastern and central areas of the island.

With tension mounting, some fear the army might not wait for the six-month impeachment process to play out and instead move in to topple Wahid and take control. Sources close to the military, however, say they fear the wrath of the millions who gave Megawati 30% of the vote in 1999. But if the crisis isn't resolved soon, the world's fourth-most-populous nation could see its worst instability since 1965, when Megawati's father, Sukarno, was toppled. For Indonesia, it is again a time of great uncertainty.

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