Tomorrow, Indonesia holds its first democratic elections in 44 years. Richard Lloyd Parry follows a puzzling front runner
IMAGINE A cross between a Rolling Stones concert and a victory parade for Manchester United, held in conditions of tropical humidity, and you have some idea of the atmosphere last Thursday, at the biggest rally of the Indonesian election campaign.

Since early morning the crowd of 80,000 had been converging on an airfield on the edge of Jakarta in buses, vans and motorbikes. The warm-up band played "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Honky-Tonk Woman"; the supporters waved flags and placards. Finally, the object of their adulation appeared at the podium: the one true star of Indonesian politics, Mick Jagger and Alex Ferguson rolled into one.

Her name is Megawati Sukarnoputri, and at first glance there is nothing remotely honky-tonk about her. Even on the most climactic occasions, she appears just what she is: a thick-set, rather bossy-looking housewife of 52. But Mega, as she is universally known, is a popular icon. Posters and portraits of her stern visage are draped all over Indonesia. And when Indonesians vote in parliamentary elections tomorrow, her Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) is widely expected to win the largest share of parliamentary seats. When parliament meets in November, she stands a very good chance of being elected as the first female president of the world's fourth largest nation.

Tomorrow's poll is the first remotely democratic election held in Indonesia in 44 years and its scale and importance are staggering. Nearly 130 million of Indonesia's 205 million people are eligible to vote, and they have 48 parties to choose from. Mired in economic crisis, and stricken by outbreaks of bitter regional violence, the country has never had greater need of visionary leadership. But this election is not really a battle of ideologies, nor even distinct policies, but a struggle between a handful of political personalities, all competing to fill the void left by the resignation last year, after 32 years in power, of President Suharto.

There is Amien Rais, a smooth, Western-educated Muslim intellectual, and the leader of the National Mandate Party (PAN). There is his rival, Gus Dur, a blind Muslim cleric of the more moderate, secularist Islamic tradition. Even President BJ Habibie, Mr Suharto's successor, is in with a fighting chance at the head of Golkar, the hastily reconstituted ruling party. Opinion polls have been few and sketchy but, as the official campaign period drew to a close on Friday, no one was riding higher than Madam Mega.

By the criteria which govern most Western elections, the Megawati appeal is puzzling. Indonesia has been through many dramas in the last year, but at the most crucial moments, Mrs Megawati has disappeared from the political screen. Last May, during the student demonstrations and riots which forced out Mr Suharto, she remained at her large home in suburban Jakarta, only occasionally to be glimpsed shopping with her daughters. Last November, activists begged her to attend the funerals of students shot dead by soldiers during a demonstration; her aides said that she was having her afternoon nap. She seldom talks to journalists - when she does agree to interviews they are often cancelled or curtailed.

On the few occasions when she has been pinned down, she doesn't appear to have a great deal to say. Her campaign speeches (which tend to be brief) have consisted of vague commitments to justice, national unity and the rule of law.

Her appeal owes much to that of her father, modern Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, a populist-autocrat who was displaced by Mr Suharto in a creeping coup in 1967. Ironically, it was Sukarno who brought to an end Indonesia's last experiment with democracy. His last years were chaotic and violent, but the later excesses of Suharto fostered a warm nostalgia for Sukarno. According to rumour, Mrs Megawati remains in regular consultation with her late father through spirit mediums.

In many ways Mrs Mega-wati's low-key strategy is cunning. While her opposition rivals twist with the political winds, she has remained calm and untroubled - an icon of stability and an object of respect for people of all backgrounds and tendencies in a country of dazzling diversity. Other rivals draw support from Muslims or from secularists or conservatives - but Mega is the only true nationalist, with an appeal which crosses boundaries of race, class, region, wealth and education.

If she does become president, it will be in a very different role from her predecessors, including her mercurial father. She is likely to be more of a symbolic than an active figure, depending to a great degree on her team of gifted advisers. In terms of British icons, she is less of a pop star or sporting hero than a Queen - without glamour or intellectual brilliance, but constant, dependable, and loved beyond measure.


Just over 127 million Indonesians of 17 and over are eligible to vote in tomorrow's election for the DPR, or Parliament. Forty-eight parties are competing for 462 seats, allocated by proportional representation on a regional basis. Voters choose their party by piercing its symbol on the ballot paper with a nail; afterwards their forefingers will be marked with indelible ink. Voting is between 8am and 2pm across three time zones. To reduce fraud, counting must be completed by sunset. Preliminary results are expected within 48 hours. An additional 38 seats are guaranteed to representatives of the Armed Forces, making 500 members of the DPR. In October, they will gather with 200 government appointees in the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), the nation's highest legislative body. The following month the MPR will elect a president.