One thing is clear enough: if Indonesia's students were voting, President B. J. Habibie would be out in a flash. Thousands of them hit Jakarta's streets last week, tossing Molotov cocktails and clashing with riot troops, as Habibie delivered an "accountability speech," his justification of his 17-month-old administration. Some 170 protesters were hurt. If it were up to them, Indonesia's next president would be Megawati Sukarnoputri, the taciturn housewife who sparked the struggle against fallen former president Suharto. The students carried red flags and banners covered with her supporters' signatures, some allegedly scrawled in blood. no way other than mega, the signs vowed. But the students aren't voting, and this week's presidential election looks murkier than ever. "If [Megawati] doesn't get elected, there will be an upheaval," says Nezar Patria, a journalist and former student leader.
Megawati would have no one to blame but herself. When her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle, won 34 percent of the vote in last June's parliamentary election, many Indonesians celebrated. They hoped her victory marked the birth of real democracy and the end of the byzantine scheming that characterized Suharto's 32-year autocratic rule. All she had to do was build a coalition, like any modern politician, and she could be president. Instead, Megawati has played it the Javanese way, making oblique moves, as if power might mystically descend from the heavens. She has failed to nail down support of the military and has alienated reform-minded Muslim allies, as well as reformers in Suharto's ruling Golkar party.
Her worst move may have been to snub her old friend, Muslim scholar Abdurrahman Wahid, 59. Instead of endorsing him to be chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), her party backed his deputy for the job. Wahid retaliated. He persuaded another former Megawati ally, pro-democracy Muslim leader Amien Rais, to run for the post--and Rais won. The ailing Wahid reportedly sang and laughed after Rais's victory. He then challenged Megawati for the presidency.
Wahid may be the ultimate master of the wayang, Javanese shadow puppetry in which nothing is as it appears. As leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, a 35 million-member Muslim organization, Wahid was a pioneer in the country's democracy movement and a strident critic of Suharto. He often calls Megawati his "sister," and he supported her struggle to win back control of her party after Suharto ousted her in 1996. But during 1997 elections, Wahid campaigned for Golkar alongside Suharto's daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, known as Tutut. He recently traveled with Megawati to visit their fathers' tombs--a "cosmetic" gesture, he said last week. "As a person I like her," he said. "But as a politician she's a zero."
In response Megawati is staging her own shadow play. According to Marzuki Darusman, Golkar's vice chairman, she recently struck a quiet deal with Golkar's reformist chairman, Akbar Tandjung. The deal is that if Megawati wins the presidency, she will name Akbar as her vice president. "If Megawati is left out, the presidential election will simply be a self-defeating, destabilizing exercise," says Marzuki. "We all have to make sure she's inside the system... despite her lack of action. Perhaps that's her calculation."
Habibie is still in the race, against all odds. He is widely detested not only for failing to put an end to Suharto-era corruption but also for losing East Timor. His running mate, armed forces chief Wiranto, will win over some votes. But Habibie's government has dropped its investigation into Suharto's wealth, and he has been tainted by the Bank Bali scandal, in which some of his closest associates allegedly embezzled $70 million. (A criminal court last week declared Suharto's youngest son, Hutomo Mandala Putra, innocent of corruption charges.)
Megawati and Wahid may yet patch up. To get elected, she needs to put together 351 votes in the 700-strong MPR. Without Wahid's support, that will be tough. Some politicians think Wahid, who could win enough votes to get elected, may be scheming to knock Habibie out of the race, then step aside and let Megawati take the throne. Privately, Wahid has told Golkar reformers "not to worry." But if she wins, Megawati's inability to build consensus may bode ill for a country wracked by ethnic and religious strife. A loss could be even riskier: her supporters could set off another wave of violence. Real peace will take more than shadow plays.