For all her stubborn political resistance during the late years of President’s Suharto’s New Order regime, ruling Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) leader Megawati Sukarnoputri has never lived up to her puzzling reputation as a democratic icon.

The 72-year-old elder daughter of founding president Sukarno and a former president herself, Megawati is better known for losing two direct presidential races and avoiding an internal chairmanship election for the party she continues to dominate.

Now, she appears intent on turning back the democratic clock, pushing for constitutional changes in the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) that will reintroduce Suharto-era State Policy Guidelines (GBHN) and provide an opening for a move back to indirect presidential elections that could benefit her own daughter’s political ambitions.

Sweeping amendments to the 1945 Constitution at the dawn of democracy in 1999-2002 abolished the GBHN and also the previous system of electing a president in the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), the country’s highest legislative body.

“That’s what has worried us from the beginning,” says one well-placed government official, who listened carefully to Megawati’s speech. “She is trying to create a new landscape for 2024,” – reference to the year of the next simultaneous presidential and general elections.

When that rolls around, there is likely to be a long list of presidential contenders, most of them scions of Indonesia’s political and military elite which has never quite got over seeing a canny Central Java furniture maker called Joko Widodo snatch the ultimate electoral prize in 2014.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R), sits on the back side of a decoration bicycle with a picture of himself at a newly opened terminal at Semarang city airport, in Central Java, on June 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Presidential Palace/Handout
Joko Widodo (R) sits on the back side of a decoration bicycle with a picture of himself, June 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Presidential Palace/Handout

Some will need party horses to ride, but the field already includes Megawati’s daughter, Puan Maharani, 46, Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan, 50, former opposition vice-presidential candidate Sandiaga Uno, 50, ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s son, Agus Harimurti, 41, and even perhaps twice-defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto, 67.

Unlike president Widodo, who banked heavily on his common man image to win a second term, few of the new generation hopefuls likely have what it takes to win a nationwide election, least of all Puan, now slated to be speaker of the newly expanded 575-seat Parliament.

But continuing her Sukarno family legacy has always been firmly in Megawati’s mind, even though as president she rarely addressed the nation and often seemed uninterested in government affairs or the ordinary Indonesians she professed to care about.

While moving to restore indirect elections would be such a retrograde step it would likely spark a public outcry, one seasoned Golkar Party politician believes it is nonetheless on the cards: “This is a game of trying to rig the system to maintain the power structure. The motivation is certainly there.”

A born populist, Widodo has already indicated his opposition to restoring the authority of the consultative assembly. “I’m directly elected,” he told a group of editors last month. “Why would I support (a plan) for the MPR to appoint the president?”

Industry Minister Airlangga Hartarto, 57, a Widodo ally and chairman of second-ranked Golkar, is facing a challenge from current House Speaker Bambang Soesatyo, 56, who Megawati is supporting for the chairmanship of the MPR, the only body which can change the constitution.

Puan Maharani (L) and her mother Megawati Soekarnoputri (R) at the Parliament building in Jakarta, August 16, 2019. Photo: Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency

With both sides claiming two-thirds of the 34 provincial branches, Hartarto is insisting on holding the party’s five-year convention in December, as scheduled, while Soesatyo is demanding it happen before the presidential inauguration, like PDI-P and a number of other parties.

But time is fast running out and analysts see little hope of Soesatyo unseating Hartarto before he exercises his prerogative of nominating his own candidate for the MPR post. Without Golkar, Megawati and Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra), whose help she has enlisted, would have little hope of changing the constitution.

Even at the height of her struggle against Suharto in 1995, Megawati was of two minds over where she stood, telling this correspondent in an eye-opening interview: “There’s nothing wrong with our system, we just have to let more light in.”

A year after she finally became president in 2001, she was at it again, warning darkly about “ultra-democracy” – a hoary old term popularized during her father’s rule in the 1950s to describe Indonesia’s flirtation with liberal democracy.

On other occasions, she criticized the “excessive freedoms” Indonesians were enjoying and complained about the number of “unqualified” political parties in the nation’s Parliament – a reference to 10 of the 21 parties which had only one seat.

An Indonesian woman shows her ballots for the country’s general election at a polling station in Jakarta on April 17, 2019. – Photo: AFP/Adek Berry

In the first flush of democracy after 32 years of authoritarian rule that was not seen to be anything to worry about. The new 2019-24 House has only nine parties, with the PDI-P-led ruling coalition commanding a large majority of the seats.

Ironically, Megawati will have bad memories of 1999 when PDI-P topped the polls in the first democratic elections, only to see wily cleric Abdurrahman Wahid outmaneuver her for the presidency in the MPR; she was able to return the favor 21 months later on the back of Wahid’s ineptitude.

The 1999 setback was not nearly as bitter as her resounding defeat to Yudhoyono, her former political coordinating minister, in the first direct elections in 2004 – a loss the proud matriarch put down to his alleged betrayal and not to the lackluster campaign she ran.

Long a feature of the Suharto presidency, the GBHN were a set of political, economic and social principles the MPR enacted every five years that had to be followed by the central and regional governments.

But critics say a return to the GBHN would be hugely counterproductive by undermining decentralization, political freedoms, rule of law and democracy itself, which academics feel is already sliding backwards in Indonesia, along in other nations around the world.

Indonesian commentators are already warning of a two-fold danger – the political-business-military elite seeking to regain its old grip on power on one hand, and the robed forces of the right offering the dream of an Islamic state on the other.

There has been talk in the past that Megawati will step aside in 2020, but supporters noticed few signs of that at the party’s five-yearly convention in Bali last month where she showed a lot more energy, even playing with the crowd on occasion.

Not everyone was amused. After being subjected to an embarrassing lecture at the last PDI-P convention in 2015, Widodo had to listen this time to her demands that the party receive more than four seats in his new 35-strong Cabinet.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (L) and PDI-P leader Megawati Sukarnoputri (R) in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

Later, he was overheard asking a senior aide: “Does she think she is the president?” It is a question he may have had to ask frequently given Megawati’s sense of entitlement and her annoyance at having to give ground to someone she has always regarded as a functionary.

“When Megawati speaks, I always have the feeling I am listening to my mother giving me a lecture,” says one official who is close to the palace. “The relationship with the president has changed because he is more confident in himself. She thinks he’s the same person.”

When the Cabinet is finally announced on or about inauguration day, on October 20, the make-up of the Cabinet will present the clearest clue whether Widodo has had his way, not only with Megawati, but also with the other party leaders. It will also determine whether he means it when he says he has “nothing to lose” in a second and final term.