Indonesia’s Grand Dame Megawati Asserts her Clout

Dismissed by some as being far past her political sell-by date, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the 72-year-old former president and Grand Dame of Indonesian politics, stepped forward last weekend during her party’s annual conclave in Bali as a power broker and bulwark against rising Islamic fundamentalism.

She gathered failed presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto into the same room with Jokowi, as the president is universally known, in a wide-ranging speech (in Indonesian), calling for the defense of secular values against Islamism. She prodded, joked and demanded fealty, at once point dancing on the podium while holding her thumbs up in victory. Seemingly she will get the loyalty she is demanding.

Reelected by acclamation to head her Indonesia Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP), the matriarch is poised to control four or more key posts in the next cabinet as the largest party in Jokowi's coalition. The president is scheduled to select his new cabinet in early October, after he takes the oath of office that he gained from his April 17 election win.

The party’s weekend gathering was a whos-who of the powerful from Prabowo to the president as she chided, joked and instructed from the podium. Some who have written off the daughter of Indonesia's founding president Sukarno have done so at their peril. There are persistent rumors that she is trying to maneuver a close aide, spy chief Budi Gunawan, eventually into the vice presidency despite allegations of corruption, should Jokowi's aged running mate, Islamic cleric Ma’ruf Amin, prove not up to the challenge.

She brought Basuki Purnama Tjahaja, the former governor of Jakarta, back into the limelight after he had been driven from power by a trumped-up Muslim attack and jailed for blasphemy of the Quran. That was an especially significant gesture, given that Ahok, as the former governor is known, became a target both because of his Chinese nationality and his Christianity. His defeat and imprisonment in 2017 marked an ominous turn in the country’s rising atmosphere of religious fundamentalism.

Some advisers warned her against mentioning him, she said. “Some say, "I do not please call Pak Ahok again, Mr. Ahok again, Mr. Ahok again. I said his name..Then I must have, I memorized Basuki Tjahaja Purnama? Mr. Purnama, how are you?"

The message: Mega is back. By turns funny and fierce, she is suddenly the player to watch. While she is unlikely to ever run for president again, she appears to be power broker for 2024 moving forward. Nominally a member of the PDI-P, Jokowi remains junior to the woman who sees herself as the monarch of the country. While their relationship has warmed in recent years, he remains deferential -- as seemingly does everyone else in the halls of power.

This may be a good thing. Few politicians have challenged the Saudi-tinged Wahabi pressure groups seeking to turn Indonesia into a sharia state. These groups backed Prabowo out of convenience but Mega seems intent on kicking them out of the mainstream.

“Don't you fabricate each other's beliefs as the only absolute truth,” she said. “There is no absolute truth in this world, as if personal and group truths are absolute truths. Even though the absolute truth is only the owner, God Almighty, Allah. Such a strategy clearly endangers the integrity of the nation. Remember, my children, if that is the strategy that you choose, then the direct election that has been planned and made so difficult by the people to choose a leader will only end up suffering for the people.”

Jokowi must surely welcome the assistance and even Prabowo, who is not a religious man, was content to be scolded by her as he seeks a seat back at the adult table. Her antipathy toward the former Special Forces general appears to put an end to widespread expectations in Jakarta that Prabowo would join the government in some position, possibly in the cabinet, when Jokowi announces his new cabinet in October.

She also dared Prabowo, who is widely expected to run again in the 2024 presidential sweepstakes, to go up against her and the PDI-P again. “Yeah, you know, aren't you tired, if you are told to keep fighting?” she told Prabowo from the podium. “All right. We will fight again in 2024. Ready?”

Without mentioning his name, she nonetheless warned against the kind of tactics that characterized the end of the 2019 campaign, saying “If the attitude of intolerant behavior you use in elections, the Pancasila democracy that we aspire to will be destroyed, the unity of the nation will be destroyed, the strength of the nation will be destroyed, the triumph of mutual cooperation will be destroyed. And what will remain is terror and anarchy, chaos and sadness.”

Although he lost the April election decisively, Prabowo dominated votes on the island of Sumatra, especially West Sumatra, West Java and South Sulawesi that are home to religious fundamentalists. Following the announcement of Jokowi’s victory, his followers staged a violence-filled attack that was responsible for the deaths of eight persons. Police exposed a plot to kill all four of the president’s security officials.

Her treatment of the president himself was reminiscent of the schooling she gave him in 2014 when she told a political gathering on live television that “I made you a presidential candidate. But you should remember that you are the party’s official, with a function of implementing the party’s programs and ideology.”

She repeated that message in 2015 during a Bali party convention when she again forced Jokowi, now the president, to sit in the audience while she lectured him on the fact that she was calling the shots. But arguably her most significant message was reserved for the Islamist conservatives.

“We are all Indonesian citizens,” she said. “So elections are just a tool to perfect Pancasila democracy. If the attitude of hatred and blasphemy is rampant because of the general election, if the integrity of the nation falls apart because of the general election, if the nation's power is crushed because of the general election, then actually with a clear mind the democracy has actually been paralyzed.”

If anyone plays that strategy in the general election, she continued, “the election will ultimately only be a tool to drag the nation - surely - to leave Pancasila, to become a tool that systematically denies the mandate of the 1945 Constitution. This means that anyone who uses these patterns has intentionally devastated the Republic of Indonesia and intentionally also eliminated unity in diversity from the land of Indonesia. Can you imagine if this happened? Then what is the solution and is there a solution? In my opinion, nothing. Yes, ruined.”

She ended her speech with the traditional Arabic blessing “As-Salaam-Alaikum," meaning "Peace be unto you." Then she added the Hindu traditional blessing prevalent on the island of Bali, “Om shanti shanti om,” meaning “peace for all the world.”