JAKARTA: Whatever her shortcomings, President Megawati Soekarnoputri is not a person who is easily intimidated. Doubters only have to remember her stubborn defiance of president Suharto’s iron-fisted policies toward the dissident faction of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), which she led from 1993 to 1998 and which later evolved into the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan).
This same characteristic might also explain her initial refusal to bow to popular demand to annul the recently announced hikes in fuel prices and electricity and telephone rates.
The latest, and arguably most notable, illustration of this particular characteristic was the challenge she threw up earlier this week to her critics and political opponents to meet her “face-to-face and like a man” in free and fair general elections scheduled for next year, rather than trying to unseat her through underhanded means.
The President, of course, was referring to the increasingly rowdy street protests against the price hikes that have been taking place over the past couple of weeks.
And indeed, distressing as the thought may be, it is difficult to simply dismiss rumours that are making their way through the grapevine that certain parties are exploiting the popular discontent that has arisen over the price hikes as a vehicle to unseat the government and advance their own interests.
In fact, hints to that effect were made only days ago by the coordinating minister for political affairs and security, quoting intelligence information.
That information, of course, may or may not be correct. As far as the general public is concerned, however, one of the things that tend to lend credibility to those rumours is that the protests have clearly shifted their focus – or, to be more exact, have become shattered in their focus.
Immediately after the announcement of the price increases, the demonstrations were centred predominantly on protesting against the hikes. However, the protests of the past few days have become more and more focused on trying to bring down the government of President Megawati and Vice-President Hamzah Haz, ignoring the fact that demands for a rollback in the price hikes have at least in part been met.
Also ignored is the fact that it is impossible for the government to continue to subsidise fuel prices forever because, on the one hand, it lacks the money to do so and on the other it is reluctant to continue borrowing forever, which would only mean shifting the burden of repaying the loans to future generations of Indonesians.
In view of all this, the question on everybody’s lips these days is what is going on? Toppling the government at this stage and installing a new one would take the nation back to square one. Clearly, this is something it cannot afford. Therefore, there is much to say for Megawati’s challenge to our politicians to fight it out fairly in the upcoming general elections.
This, of course, is not to say that the government can ignore the genuine voice of the people. Protests are a legitimate instrument of democracy for channelling discontent. Of course, they can be used by politicians with hidden agendas.
But protests would be much more difficult for such politicians to organise in the absence of injustices and iniquities, whether real or perceived.
This, we are afraid, is where the government of Megawati and Hamzah falls short of expectations. Little is perceived to have been done to combat corruption.
Indeed, the general perception is that corruption has become even more entrenched under the present regime than it was in the days of Suharto. Injustices, also, are seen as still being committed, as exemplified in the privileged treatment of wealthy business people.
Democracy, still in its infancy after almost 57 years of independence, must be allowed to grow and take its proper course in this country. Falling into the habit of bringing about an undue mid-term change of government certainly would not serve this objective.
As for the administration, this must not be taken as justification for not starting to work hard to improve the situation and steer the country back toward democratic reform.
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