She is much more than an opposition politician. Megawati is an idol. And possibly Indonesia's fourth president.
On 8 October 1998 the leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) and daughter of Indonesia's first president Sukarno, Megawati Sukarnoputri, opened the party's fifth congress in Sanur in southern Bali. The opening session was held on a large field in the outskirts of the Balinese capital Denpasar. Hundreds of thousands of Megawati's supporters dressed in the party's colours red and black flocked to the field to hear her speech.
Many had travelled for days to Bali from all over the archipelago to take part in the celebrations around the congress and to show their support for Megawati. Most of the audience, however, were Balinese youths from around the island.
As Megawati ascended the speaker's podium, the masses could hardly contain their excitement, ecstatically shouting 'Mega! Mega!'. For almost an hour, Megawati laid out her vision for Indonesia in the post-Suharto era, frequently interrupted by loud applause and choruses of approval.
Afterwards congress delegates moved to the Grand Bali Beach Hotel in Sanur to hold the rest of the sessions, all of which were closed to the public. The congress went smoothly. There were few visible lines of division between the delegates, and no disturbances occurred during any of the three congress days.
Megawati was unanimously re-elected party leader. Moreover the congress decided to nominate her as the party's candidate for the coming presidential election in November 1999.
Commonplace as it may seem, the decision by a political party to nominate its leader as a presidential candidate is unique in Indonesia's political history. No party ever dared to challenge Sukarno for the presidency before he was forced by the military to hand over power in 1966. Under the New Order, the political system was carefully designed to preserve Suharto's single candidacy for the presidency.
The government employed a range of manipulative and repressive measures to achieve this and to silence dissenting voices. In June 1996, after Megawati had hinted she might stand as a candidate in the March 1998 presidential election, the government engineered a PDI congress which ousted her as party leader and reinstated the party's former leader, Suryadi.
However, Megawati refused to acknowledge the legality of that congress, not even after Suryadi's PDI faction, backed by the military and by hired thugs, attacked and ousted her supporters from the party's central headquarters in Jakarta on 27 July 1996. At least five people were killed in the attack, which triggered the worst riot in Jakarta in more than a decade, with thousands of people burning and looting shops and government buildings in the area around the party headquarters.
Megawati continued to assert that she was the legitimate leader of the PDI, and she refused to compromise with the government and the Suryadi faction. However, the government barred her from participating in the May 1997 election. The PDI consequently performed disastrously, collecting only 3.1% of the votes, down from 14.9% in 1992. The result was widely interpreted as a sign of public disgust with the government's treatment of Megawati.
The government consistently denied her any formal role in politics. Even after Suharto resigned in May 1998 and the political climate opened up, the Habibie government continued only to acknowledge the PDI faction led by Suryadi. In August 1998 the faction held a government sponsored congress in Palu, Central Sulawesi. Here Suryadi was replaced with Budi Harjono, who had been the government's preferred candidate for the PDI chair in 1993, when Megawati first was elected.
Megawati's ousting in 1996 and the government's subsequent rough treatment of her, helped to heighten the public sense of injustice and lack of democracy under the New Order. Meanwhile, Megawati managed to stay in the political limelight through her uncompromising stance toward the government. While the affair exposed the government's heavy-handedness and manipulative methods, it also served to boost Megawati's public reputation for justice and incorruptibility.
It was no coincidence that Megawati chose Bali as the venue for her congress in October. Bali is one of her strongest provinces of support. Many Balinese still hold Sukarno in high esteem - his mother was Balinese. As the congress approached, Megawati's popularity was clearly visible all around the island. The Balinese put Megawati and Sukarno posters outside their houses and stickers on their cars. Along the roads there were red flags with the PDI symbol of a buffalo head, and the text 'Pro- Megawati'.
Motorbikes had similar flags hanging from behind. People wore red T-shirts, capes, headbands and accessories with party attributes, such as badges, necklaces and key rings. Large home-painted billboards of Sukarno and Megawati decorated the roadsides in many villages.
Young Megawati supporters built bamboo sheds on poles in their neighbourhoods and hamlets, all painted red and decorated with posters of Megawati and political slogans. In the evenings, the youngsters assembled in the sheds to talk politics and to listen to protest songs and recordings of Megawati's opening speech of the congress. Every day, from the early afternoon until late at night, the main roads around Denpasar were crammed with thousands of people, mostly young men and teenagers, who rode around town in large and lively caravans of motorbikes, cars and trucks. Sitting on top of their vehicles or hanging out the windows, the celebrators tirelessly waved their red flags and shouted 'Mega! Mega!' or 'Hidup Mega!' (Long Live Mega) in chorus.
This exuberant eruption of political activity among the Balinese took place after several decades of repression of political activity. The Suharto regime aimed at depoliticising Indonesia's masses. It destroyed or emasculated existing political parties. The only approved political activity was to express support for the government's electoral vehicle, Golkar. Activists for other parties were often harassed.
Suharto's resignation in May brought about a more open political climate. It led to a virtual explosion of long-suppressed political activity around the country. Megawati's congress provided a welcome opportunity for the Balinese to celebrate their new-won political freedom.
Political commentators have often criticised Megawati for being a weak politician, lacking fundamental understanding of politics and economics and having little in terms of a concrete political program. Relevant as this critique may seem, it is primarily a view held by the political elites in Indonesia.
For Megawati's young followers, she is much more than an opposition politician, she is an idol. One Balinese high school student said: 'Megawati has been my idol ever since junior high school. [...] Because of her self-confidence, Megawati dares to be oppositional [and] to fight continuously to defend the truth.' Another student said: 'Mega is a super woman. She dares to face any obstacle whatsoever. I hope I can become like her.'
While there is no doubt that Megawati's popularity largely derives from her father's name, that does not go all the way to explain it. Megawati is able to benefit from her father's popularity because she has built a reputation for certain moral qualities of her own. Megawati's struggle against the New Order government boosted her reputation for justice, righteousness, integrity and political courage. These are also qualities that Sukarno's name represents to those Indonesians who still hold the former president's name dear. Many people also tend to see Megawati's struggle for justice against the New Order as an analogy to Sukarno's struggle for justice and independence against the Dutch in the 1930s.
Since Suharto's resignation in May, discussion about the wide- spread corruption and injustice under the New Order has created much public resentment. In contrast, Megawati symbolises justice and is untainted by corruption. She enjoys broad support among poor Indonesians who feel strongly that they were disadvantaged under the New Order, and who have yet to see things change for the better.
Young Balinese showed extra-ordinary enthusiasm for Megawati, but she has large followings all around the country and from all generations. Many of her supporters belong to the poor urban masses who are among the hardest hit by the current economic crisis. If the May 1999 election even roughly reflects the popular political will, the PDI under Megawati may very well become Indonesia's largest political party, collecting perhaps 25-30% of the votes. Apart from Golkar, the PDI stands out as the only major non-Islamic political alternative.
Islamic credentials are no doubt an advantage in a country where close to 90% of the population are Muslim. But many non-Muslims and moderate Muslims are suspicious of political Islamic aspirations, and this works to Megawati's benefit. If after next year's election the PDI can strike a deal with one or more of the moderate Muslim parties, then Megawati stands a good chance of becoming Indonesia's fourth president in November 1999.
Stefan Eklof is a PhD student writing about the PDI at Lund University, Sweden. He is the author of 'Indonesian politics in crisis' (NIAS, expected out early 1999).