The problem with ‘strong’ leaders is that they do not leave behind an obvious successor. This is further complicated if the ‘strong’ leader also happens to be in power for a long time. This is what confronts the people of Indonesia where general Suharto has been in power since 1966, thanks to a CIA-engineered coup that took care of at least one million innocent lives.
With so much blood on his hands, Suharto obviously does not allow any rival, real or imaginary, to get in his way even if he is 75 years old and in poor health. His departure for Germany on July 7 for medical check-up only heightened speculation about his health and what would happen to the country if he were suddenly to drop dead.
If past experience is any guide - and there is no reason not to believe it - nothing much would happen. The graveyard is full of indipensible people. Suharto, however, does not entertain such thoughts. He is planning to run for another five-year term - his seventh - in 1998.
A challenge has been mounted to his rule from a quarter with which he may not be able to deal in the same manner as he has dealt with previous opponents. Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the late president Sukarno, has risen to challenge the near-total control that Suharto exercises on the political process in the country.
Last month, the 49-year-old Megawati brought her supporters into the streets of Jakarta to challenge the regime’s attempts to bar her from contesting the parliamentary polls due next year. Interior minister Yogie Suardi Memet said on July 3 that only a rival group to Megawati would be allowed to represent the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI). General Feisal Tanjung, chief of the Indonesian armed forces, also opened his big guns against Megawati saying that she was trying to ‘destabilise’ the government.
Since coming to power, Suharto has maintained an iron grip on the country’s political system with the help of the ruling Golkar party. Opposition candidates can only participate in elections if approved by the regime. This does not allow for much of an oppostion to emerge.
Megawati’s challenge may alter this equation if she plays her cards properly. Suharto is reported to be suffering from acute depression since his Catholic wife died in April. Officially, the regime claims that Mrs Tien - Suharto’s wife - had accepted Islam and two years ago she even performed Hajj! But the Saudi regime has repeatedly violated the sanctity of the Haramain and it cannot be put past them to have done so again in the case of Mrs Tien as well.
Megawati’s other strong card is the fact that she is the daughter of the country’s founding father, Sukarno. No hero himself but Sukarno’s misdeeds have largely been forgotten over the 30-year period. Megawati rides on a wave of nostalgia, drawing upon people’s sympathies. She would not be the first to do so. The region has several other examples where sympathy vote has gone to daughters/widows of slain or dead leaders.
This trend started with Mrs Bandranaike in Sri Lanka where she is now the president while her daughter rules the country as prime minister. In nearby Bangladesh, the widow of one slain leader has been replaced by the daughter of another. Even in the so-called largest democracy in the world - India - the Nehru name carried Mrs Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv to power for more than two decades. And in neighbouring Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto continues to enjoy the perks of office because of her family name.
Megawati may be able to turn the tide in the huge archipelago. Suharto’s sons are also there but they seem to be more interested in amassing fortunes. Indonesia may be entering a period of political turbulence now that Suharto’s ill-health has been confirmed by his trip to Germany.
If Megawati’s challenge becomes really serious and Suharto’s health improves, the iron-fisted general may even knock her off. Nothing can be put past him. After all, he has the dubious distinction of killing a million people before. What is one more person, albeit a lady, added to this list?
Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996