This week Indonesian streets are bursting with red and white bunting, celebrating the late leader Soekarno’s proclamation of independence from the Netherlands on 17 August 1945.
Then followed a four- year protracted guerilla war against the stubborn Dutch who couldn’t sniff the stench of post-war rotting colonialism. After an estimated 150,000 deaths, the majority civilians, the United States of Indonesia was internationally recognized. Australian unions were active supporters of the revolutionaries.
Queen Juliana abandoned her Asian possessions and for decades the new nation was a republican patriarchy. Now the people next door have a de-facto monarch – Megawati Soekarnoputri.
At her party’s fifth congress in Bali this month the 72-year old Grandma stamped her feet and authority on the politics of a nation where the median age is 30.
Although Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, 58, is the elected president, Megawati is she who must be obeyed. Nepotism thrives in the nation’s most popular party with ‘democratic’ redundant in its title.
In 1965 Soekarno was deposed after a coup allegedly engineered by the Communist Party. The late General Soeharto (1921-2008) grabbed the Presidency till he was felled in 1998 when the economy crashed.
During his authoritarian rule bids by Soekarno’s family to squeeze back into politics were crushed. When the first president died in 1970 his body was whisked to the distant East Java town of Blitar so his grave wouldn’t become a shrine for Jakarta subversives. (It’s now a mausoleum and draws huge crowds of pilgrims daily.)
Soekarno had nine wives and 11 kids. Megawati was his second child and first daughter. Her patronym is supposed to mean ‘cloud goddess’.
Mega, as she’s widely known, had little public life till the mid 1980s when she joined the Soeharto-sanctioned Partai Demokrasi Indonesia (PDI). She was considered a harmless Mum so to honour her Dad (now titled Proklamator) she was allowed a seat in the House of Representatives (DPR).
This was a puppet parliament in the steel grip of Soeharto and the military, but it gave Mega a platform to promote paterfamilias’ secular nationalism, though now much diluted by political Islam.
Soeharto got nervous so he staged a split of PDI members and thugs to break up a meeting. Riots followed; five died and 23 went ‘missing’. By then the long-oppressed press was becoming braver in reporting dirty tricks so Mega became a focal point for dissenters. The PDI was renamed PDI-P, the last initial standing for Perjuangan, meaning ‘Struggle’. Soeharto’s Golkar Party, which always won elections, began to crumble.
With the shunt to democracy this century Mega became fifth president by accident. She was vice president appointed by the legislature to the reformist but erratic Abdurrahman (Gus Dur) Wahid. In 2001 he quit after being threatened with impeachment so she got bumped upwards.
Little happened during her dull reign, with commentators quipping she left the Army to run the show while she went on manoeuvres in overseas shopping malls. Madam has the magic name but not Soekarno’s charisma and oratorical skills which terrified Australia when he condemned the West at huge rallies during the Cold War.
The voters could see behind the image and wanted reform. In 2004 Mega lost to one of her ministers Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) in the first direct election by the people. She stood again in 2009 and was heavily trounced by the same man, becoming a splendid hater.
In the 2014 presidential election she belatedly ordered the PDI-P to endorse Widodo, then Governor of Jakarta. Even after he won Mega called him a ‘functionary’ in public. For her the former furniture salesman who’d been elected by popular vote owed his success to her regal recognition. Most political observers thought otherwise and attributed Widodo’s win to his humility and ability to connect with the wong cilik, the wee folk who make up the bulk of the electorate.
In this year’s elections Widodo garnered a second five-year term; the PDI-P collected the top position overall with almost 20 per cent of the votes. Twenty parties contested, but only nine won seats.
Now Mega is scheming to get either daughter Puan Maharani, 45, to take over the party so she can contest the presidency in 2024, or her half-brother Prananda Prabowo, 49. (He’s no relation to Prabowo Subianto, the bitter losing contestant in this year’s presidential contest, who also attended the PDI-P congress. That’s like Bill Shorten getting VIP treatment at a Liberal victory knees-up where Scott Morrison’s offspring are offered a clearway to future power.)
Red-jacketed PDI-P Congress delegates endorsed Mega as chairwoman without the messy business of voting. Any policies on the agenda were swamped by personalities.
She told Widodo publicly to include many PDI-P members in the Cabinet he’s forming ahead of his October swearing in. Under the Indonesian system ministers can be appointed from outside politics. Widodo is known to favour technocrats and promotion on merit, but is fettered by Mega’s chains and those of minor parties coalescing with PDI-P.
When Widodo first took office Mega reportedly pumped up the pressure to slip her friends into key positions, including the military. He had to make her daughter Puan Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Cultural Affairs; the lady has yet to display any notable qualities that warrant high office other than bloodline.
The Constitution prevents Widodo from standing again, so he no longer needs the sovereign’s patronage. As a mild-mannered Javanese in a culture which respects the elderly, regicide is not an option. But with five years of running the world’s third largest democracy, Widodo has built a stand-alone reputation so may quietly find ways to step around the throne.
Australian journalist Duncan Graham lives in Indonesia.