Fri, Jul 02, 2004 - Page 5 News List

In first-ever presidential debate in Indonesia, Megawati comes off badly


Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, left, listens to her running mate, Hasyim Muzadi, during a debate in Jakarta on Wednesday.


President Megawati Sukarnoputri appeared tense, distracted and often unprepared in Indonesia's first-ever presidential debate -- a showing critics said gained her little support among disenchanted voters and may have sealed her defeat in next week's election.

Analysts said the 57-year-old Megawati needed a dynamic performance in Wednesday's debate to shake off the image that she is an aloof "princess" and give her a massive boost in popularity ahead of Monday's elections. She has trailed frontrunner Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono by as much 30 percent in recent polls.

Instead, she was panned for stiffly reading from prepared statements in the cordial debate with one of her four rivals, lawmaker Amien Rais, giving vague answers or letting her running mate, Hasyim Muzadi, answer many of the questions from panelist.

"This definitely didn't help her," said Sjahirir, a political analysts who attended the debate.

"Can you imagine? She started out reading from a text and then ended by letting Muzadi read from a text. You're running for office and you can't talk freely for three minutes? She's got no chance," Sjahirir said.


Debates -- a second one was to be held last night with the three remaining candidates -- mark the end of the campaign season ahead of the country's first-ever direct presidential vote.

During the 90-minute televised event, Megawati mostly revived stale campaign promises -- 13 million jobs, a 40 percent cut in poverty -- without offering details of how they would be realized.

She also defended her record and begged voters to give her more time to fix the ailing economy and crackdown on widespread corruption -- issues which have caused her popularity to plummet in recent months and her party's support to drop by one-third in April legislative elections.

"Many of our problems started many years ago," she said.

weak showing

"It isn't easy to overhaul this situation. We have made progress," she said.

Her weak showing is the latest sign that the daughter of the country's founding father, Sukarno, could be headed for retirement.

Megawati became president in July 2001, replacing the erratic Abdurrahman Wahid, who was impeached on charges of corruption and incompetence.

She had a loyal following from her days as a critic of ex-dictator Suharto -- her headquarters were attacked by Suharto security forces in 1996 -- and many hoped she would match the charisma of her father, who died under house arrest in 1970.

Supporters also expected her administration to take aim at Suharto and his cronies, help the poor and lead the country's ongoing transition to a democracy.

But to their dismay, corruption worsened and Suharto remains free -- he even voted in the April election. Anti-government activists have been jailed and the economy, while stabilizing, has not grown fast enough to put a dent in the country's double-digit unemployment or help the country's poorest citizens.

standing idle

"She created an enormous amount of hope going back to 1998 and 1999," said Jeffrey Winters, an Indonesian expert at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

"She misread the signals and somehow did not realize that people wanted genuine change on issues like corruption and wanted real progress on economy. She didn't deliver," he said.

Her reputation, critics said, has also been hurt by a close relationship with the military and a track record in which she has been slow to respond to crisis, rarely speaks in public and often refuses to heed advice.

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