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Taking the democracy out of Indonesia's democratic party

Megawati Sukarnoputri's autocratic leadership style of years past has no place in the Indonesia of the future

Keith Loveard, Jakarta

Keith Loveard, Jakarta

Updated: August 23, 2019 04:57 AM GMT
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Taking the democracy out of Indonesia's democratic party

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, left, is seen here with former president Megawati Soekarnoputri at her residence in Jakarta in this 2014 file photo. (Photo by Bay Ismoyo/AFP)

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Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia's founding president Sukarno, was instrumental in the foundation of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), now the country’s largest political party.

Many years later she is showing no signs of letting go of the party, which appears to be in danger of losing its democratic foundations to her autocratic management style.

The party’s fifth 5-year congress in Bali from Aug. 8-11 saw Megawati re-elected by acclamation as the party chair.

Suggestions that new positions of deputy chair should be created were dismissed, even though they had been marked down for her own children.

This stamps the party as her personal enterprise and denies any chance of regeneration, even from within her own family.

Megawati’s political career began quietly as a member of the House of Representatives in what was then the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). The PDI was one of only two parties tolerated by the republic’s autocratic second president, Suharto.

The United Development Party (PPP) saw all the country’s varied Islam-based political parties pushed under its banner, while secular and nationalist groupings were forced into the PDI, creating factionalism in both that continues to this day.

The government ruled with the aid of its own Golkar political machine, an amalgam of military, business and bureaucratic interests.

In her early years as a lawmaker, Megawati rarely turned up to House sessions. That changed in 1993, when she was elected as chair of the party, backed by a faction allied to her late father’s old Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI).

Visibly unhappy with the rise of the daughter of the man he had pushed from power, Suharto maneuvered to depose the new PDI leader. His efforts failed, culminating in rioting in Jakarta in 1996 after a bloody invasion of a sit-in at the party headquarters by elements loyal to Megawati.

The formerly reluctant politician became the symbol of opposition to the old dictator. On his resignation two years later, her rebel PDI group added Perjuangan — struggle — to its name and then swept the 1999 elections, turning Jakarta and other cities red with its trademark color.

While the party bungled its electoral success in the face of paternalistic bias that saw it as inappropriate that a woman should lead the country, Megawati eventually became president, serving from 2001-2004.

She and the party failed to convince the electorate they deserved a second term, with the baton of the presidency passing to a military candidate, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Since then, the PDI-P has remained one of the best performing of the parties. At the April 17 polls, it scooped 19.33 percent of the votes, the largest share of the 16 parties on the ballot paper.

Along the way, it has lost its share of members to corruption cases, but it continues to be a major force in many regions, not least mainly Christian Papua and Hindu Bali, provinces where party cadre Joko Widodo took more than 90 percent of the presidential vote in April.

The party is now keen to translate its victory at the ballot box into the major role in Widodo’s second administration.

Initially scheduled for next year, the party congress was brought forward in order to claim pole position ahead of the start of his new term in October and before he announces his next cabinet.

Widodo has at times appeared to chafe at Megawati’s autocratic insistence that he is just an ordinary member of the party. At the recent congress, he bowed to her demands that the party should get plum cabinet positions.

"One thing for sure is that the PDI-P will get the most ministerial posts ... I guarantee that," Widodo is reported to have told the congress immediately after Megawati had staked her claim in an address to the red-jacketed delegates.

That makes it likely that the core of Megawati’s henchmen — current State Secretary Pratikno, Cabinet Secretary Pramono Anung, Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo and Justice and Human Rights Minister Yasonna Laoly — are likely to be retained despite black marks against some of them.

Another PDI-P stalwart, Megawati’s daughter Puan Maharani, currently the coordinating minister for social affairs, is expected to return to the House of Representatives as Speaker of the House.

What she won’t be getting is the deputy chair position of the party that was much talked about before the congress. Nor will Megawati’s son, Prananda Prabowo, be getting a similar position.

The congress voted for him to retain his position as chairman of the creative economy division. Seldom heard from, he is believed to be unpopular with other party members.

In retaining the leadership herself, Megawati may have been sensitive to opposition to her turning the PDI-P into her family dynasty. But she has lost none of her autocratic style, and in the past she has forced out one-time allies such as Eros Djarot who dared to oppose her.

Widodo has said he’ll announce his next cabinet soon, in what could be a challenge to her authority. He has sent mixed signals about its composition. At one stage he said it will consist of 60 percent politicians and 40 percent professionals, but on Aug. 14 he said more than half would be technocrats.

It’s still not clear whether former opposition groups such as Prabowo Subianto’s Greater Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) will get a share of the spoils. He is currently popular with Megawati and attended the Bali congress.

Should Widodo’s cabinet line-up fail to meet her expectations, Megawati is unlikely to protest publicly but she will make her displeasure obvious. For Widodo, the question is whether he is really the president or whether he does what he is told by his party leader.

For Indonesia’s sake, it would be best if he ignores the demands of the aging Megawati. While the April elections proved that Indonesians are still keen to exercise their democratic right to vote for their leaders, the parties are doing little to justify their existence.

Allowing Megawati to dictate events would be the wrong move for a president who wants to drag Indonesia out of the old habits that she increasingly represents.

Keith Loveard is an Indonesia-based journalist and analyst. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.

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