International Papers

Megawati Turns Out Wahid’s Lights

The international press endorsed the dismissal of Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid and the investiture of Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of modern Indonesia’s founding leader Sukarno, as head of state. Abdurrahman was Indonesia’s first freely elected president, but during his 21-month tenure the supreme parliament tired of his erratic and ineffectual ways, unanimously declaring him incompetent Monday. Spain’s El País said, “Wahid stirred hopes, but he soon appeared to lose his head.” (Confused why some papers refer to the former president as Abdurrahman and others as Wahid? See thisSlate “Explainer” on Indonesian names.) However, an editorial in the Age of Melbourne took a less positive view of the proceedings:

The campaign to destroy him began almost from the minute he took office, driven by conservative forces in the political elite, the military and the bureaucracy, many of whom were connected to the former Suharto regime. Having failed to discredit him on the basis of impropriety after he was cleared of any involvement in corruption scandals, his enemies cited political incompetence as the grounds for dismissal. It is true Mr Wahid’s decision-making was increasingly erratic, that he was seemingly unable to institute a systematic program of economic reform and that he failed to quell ethnic and religious violence across the archipelago. But incompetence is a matter to be judged at the ballot box, not by impeachment.

There was wide agreement that Megawati faces an extraordinarily difficult job—as Canada’s National Post observed, “With its 17,000 islands, 300 ethnic groups, 250 languages and various obscure secessionist movements, Indonesia is arguably the most politically complex nation on Earth.” The new president’s most oft-cited personal characteristic was her taciturnity: As the Sydney Morning Herald noted, “Her campaign was marked by the absence of statements on any key issues.” A Herald editorial described her as “a political blank screen upon which the disparate aspirations of her huge following are presented.” She was portrayed as a poorly educated political lightweight who was persuaded to enter politics at age 40 exclusively on the basis of her family name. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported, “Her critics accuse her of being too vulnerable to the influence of badly chosen men, and she is alleged to have only a limited understanding of administrative and management challenges.” (It’s impossible not to notice how many stories focus on Megawati’s personal life—from the accounts her husband’s alleged corruption to the stories of her earlier relationships, including a 90-minute marriage to an Egyptian diplomat.) Her party is the biggest in parliament, though it doesn’t hold a majority, and her immense personal popularity appears to be her greatest asset, though the Sydney Morning Herald expressed concern for her occasional demonstrations of personal privilege:

Under Soeharto, political connections and personal power were everything. What Indonesia needs now, perhaps more urgently than anything else, are reforms which reward merit and give the poor majority hope they will not remain eternally shut out of the opportunities afforded the elite.

Will she succeed? Everyone doubts she will cope well with Indonesia’s incipient independence movements, including the most violent examples in Aceh and Irian Jaya, or with communal violence, as seen in the Moluccan Islands and Borneo. A strong nationalist with fierce loyalty to her father, whose concept of the unified Indonesian state rejected federalism or separatism, Megawati is unlikely to show tolerance or a willingness to negotiate with any groups who want to break up the Indonesian republic. Several papers noted her close links to the military. Britain’s Daily Telegraph predicted: “[T]he fact that she is closer to the military than Mr Wahid could stoke rebellion in the outlying provinces, and cause trouble for East Timor, whose independence she opposed. The prospect is for governance both more predictable and less liberal than that of her predecessor.” A news analysis in the International Herald Tribune suggested that the military “is returning to center stage and again playing a key political role in the world’s fourth most populous nation” and quoted analysts’ warnings that “the shift of power to the military could lead to a crackdown on political dissent in the name of restoring stability after months of turmoil that paralyzed the government.”

According to an AFP story in La Nación of Argentina, there are now seven female presidents: Megawati, Ireland’s Mary McAleese, Finland’s Tarja Halonen, Latvia’s Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Panama’s Mireya Moscoso, Sri Lanka’s Chandrika Kumaratunga, and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines. (Additionally, the queens of Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Denmark are their countries’ heads of state.) New Zealand and Bermuda have female prime ministers. The Guardian of London noted how many of Asia’s female leaders have followed a dynastic line to power—Macapagal Arroyo’s father was president in the early 1960s; Kumaratunga’s mother was the world’s first female prime minister; Sheikh Hasina, who was Bangladesh’s prime minister until last week, is the daughter of the nation’s founder; and both Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and India’s Indira Gandhi followed in their father’s footsteps as prime ministers of their countries.

Shopping in a deregulated market: The German government has abolished two 1930s-era laws that barred retailers from offering significant discounts and giving gifts to customers. According to the Financial Times, the move was motivated by “developments in e-commerce and legal protests by international groups, including Land’s End, the US direct mail business, which complained that the laws prevented them offering German consumers deals available to customers elsewhere in Europe.” Judging from two pieces that appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, German department stores will be transformed into souks: An op-ed raved about the joy of haggling, “It is well for those who steeled their nerves as tourists in the markets and bazaars—they can now leap into the fray at home, too,” while a news story provided lists of bargaining tips for consumers and countermeasures for store employees.