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Megawati Sukarnoputri

Megawati Sukarnoputri

Diah Permata Megawati Setiawati Sukarnoputri (born 23 January 1947), became President of Indonesia on 23 July 2001.

(Some Indonesian sources spell her name Soekarnoputri or Soekarno Putri. Note that Sukarnoputri means "daughter of Sukarno" and is not the President's surname: Javanese do not have surnames. She should be referred to as President Megawati.)

Megawati was born in Jakarta, the second child and eldest daughter of Sukarno, then the president of Indonesia, which had declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1945. Her mother Fatmawati was one of Sukarno's nine wives. Megawati grew up in luxury in her father's Merdeka Palace.

Megawati went to Padjadjaran University in Bandung to study agriculture, but dropped out in 1967 to be with her father following his fall from power. Megawati was 19 when Sukarno was succeeded by a military regime led by Suharto. Sukarno's family was not molested by the new regime provided they stayed out of politics.

In 1970, the year Sukarno died, Megawati went to the University of Indonesia to study psychology but dropped out after two years. Even her warmest admirers would not claim that Megawati is an intellectual, and she has little knowledge of the world outside Indonesia. She is a pious Muslim but also follows traditional Javanese beliefs and has great faith in astrology.

Megawati's first husband, First Lieutenant Surindo Supjarso, was killed in a plane crash in Irian Jaya in 1970. In 1972, she married Hassan Gamal Ahmad Hasan, an Egyptian diplomat. The marriage was annulled shortly after. She married Taufik Kiemas, her present husband, in 1973. They have three children, M. Rizki Pramata, M. Pranada Prabowo and Puan Maharani, now in their 30s.

Megawati avoided politics for nearly 20 years, describing herself as a simple housewife, although her father's followers continued to see her as his political heir. In 1987, however, Megawati and her husband joined the Indonesian Democracy Party (PDI), a government-sanctioned party which provided a facade of democratic choice in Suharto's "New Order" regime. As a reward for her apparent acceptance of the regime, Megawati was elected to the rubber-stamp Indonesian Parliament.

In 1993 Megawati became the leader of PDI. By this time Suharto was 72 and his regime was weakening. Megawati apparently decided to take up an openly oppositional position. She immediately became hugely popular, despite her lack of experience, mainly because of her name, but also because she was seen as free of corruption and having admirable personal qualities.

By 1996 the regime realised it had made a mistake in allowing Megawati to enter politics, and forced her removal from the leadership of the PDI. This triggered rioting in Jakarta. Megawati was banned from contesting the May 1997 general election. This only increased her popularity. She formed her own party, PDI-Perjuangan (PDI-P) (Perjuangan means "Struggle.") During this period Megawiti displayed great courage in opposing the regime and became a symbol of hope for democratic reform.

The Asian economic crisis which began in 1997, as well as increasing public anger at pervasive corruption, brought about the end of Suharto’s long rule, and he resigned in May 1998. His successor, B. J. Habibie, promised free elections in 1999, and the PDI-P rapidly became the main rival to the government party, Golkar.

At the June 1999 elections, the PDI-P emerged as the largest party, but did not win an absolute majority of votes, or a majority of seats in the Parliament. Under Indonesia's new constitution, the President was chosen by the legislature, and Megawati appeared to have the strongest claim to the presidency. But the other parties united to block her, partly because of Muslim opposition to a woman president. Her erstwhile friend and ally, Abdurrahman Wahid, was chosen instead. Megawati agreed to become Vice President.

Wahid, however, had suffered several strokes and soon proved to be unable to carry out the role of President. He was also accused of tolerating corruption in the administration. In July 2001 the parties in the legislature united to force his resignation. On July 23, 2001, Megawati was duly installed as the new President of the Republic of Indonesia.

Under Megawati, the process of democratic reform begun under Habibie and Wahid continued, albeit slowly and erratically. Megawati appeared to see her role mainly as a symbol of national unity, and she rarely actively intervened in government business. The military, disgraced at the time of Suharto's fall, regained much of its influence. Corruption continued to be pervasive, though Megawati herself was seldom blamed for this.

Some Indonesian scholars explained Megawati's apparent passivity in office by reference to Javanese mythology. Megawati, they said, saw her father, Sukarno, as a "Good King" of Javanese legend. Suharto was the "Bad Prince" who had usurped the Good King's throne. Megawati was the Avenging Daughter who overthrew the Bad Prince and regained the Good King's throne. Once this had been achieved, they said, Megawati was content to reign as the Good Queen and leave the business of government to others.

Although Indonesia's economy has partly recovered from the 1997 crisis, unemployment and poverty remain high, and there is considerable disappointment at Megawati's presidency. The Indonesian Constitution has been amended to provide for the direct election of the President, and Megawati's term will expire in 2004. It is not clear whether she will run for a second term.

If Megawati does run, it is far from certain that she will be re-elected. There is still considerable opposition among Muslims to a woman president, and Islamic opinion has been aroused by the Israel-Palestine conflict and the Iraq war. Although Megawati opposed the war, she has co-operated with the United States in the war against terrorism, and with Australia in catching those responsible for the 2002 Bali terrorist bombing. A strong male Islamic candidate would be favoured to defeat Megawati.