Sunday, July 29, 2001



Megawati Sukarnoputri, left, is embraced by her father
and Indonesia's first president Sukarno at the State Palace
in Jakarta on Jan. 10, 1960.

Daughters of presidents
face daunting tasks as
Asia’s newest leaders

Belinda A. Aquino
Special to the Star-Bulletin

The politics of Indonesia and the Philippines, two vastly different countries in Southeast Asia, have become strikingly similar.

Indonesia has just impeached its first democratically elected president, Abdurrahman Wahid, by a stunning unanimous vote of the People's Consultative Assembly despite his threats to declare martial law. The powerful Indonesian military ignored him.

The transition installing Megawati Sukarnoputri as the fifth president of Indonesia was potentially violent but ended peacefully. She is the daughter of Sukarno, the charismatic founder and first president of modern Indonesia -- her most important credential.

Last January, a "people power" uprising in Manila ousted president Joseph Estrada for corruption after a botched impeachment process. He was replaced by vice president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose father, Diosdado Macapagal, was president of the Philippines in 1961-65. This family connection is vital, which is why she doesn't mind when people address her as President Macapagal instead of President Arroyo.


Diosdado P. Macapagal, left, attended a testimonial
dinner with then-President of the Philippines Corazon
Aquino in this 1989 file photo.

Now, the spotlight is on the two presidential daughters, amid a lot of questions. Are they up to the job? Are they vulnerable to the historical corruption of their countries? Will Megawati be in the grip of the military? Can she live up to the towering Sukarno name? Will Gloria be able to resist the Catholic Church and the elite? Can she handle the continuing insurgencies?

Fundamentalists in both countries argue that they are unfit to be president because they are women. Never mind that they are daughters of presidents past.

Many of these questions would not be asked if the presidents were men. When Gloria attempted to run for president in 1998, Jaime Cardinal Sin's judgment was that the problems of the country were so serious that a man was needed. Gloria ran for vice president instead and won.

Already there's much speculation about Megawati's abilities and whether she could be "her own person" as the power struggle intensifies in a crisis-ridden country. Even apart from the gender issue, Megawati draws harsh reviews from groups that consider her "insufficiently Islamic" to be president of a predominantly Muslim country. She is believed to favor a political program based on secular nationalism and democratic pluralism.

No doubt it's doubly tough for both presidents to function in societies where women are second-class citizens, and where politics is the domain of men. President Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, who was Southeast Asia's first female president, spent much precious time fighting for political survival as one military coup after another tried to oust her. Gloria seems to have got off to a better start, as far as the military is concerned, but faces serious challenges from insurgents in Mindanao and from Estrada loyalists.

Even women politicians who are in positions of power are loath to push women's, especially feminist, issues. They don't want to rock the boat for fear of alienating their male colleagues. Better to get along than to lose power. Even in the Philippines, which had an earlier start on women's rights than Indonesia, women's groups have not coalesced and they need a strategy to advance their political agenda.

Gloria and Megawati have terms that end in 2004. Both seem to have staying power. Both tend to invoke their fathers' legacies. This is understandable in societies that place high cultural value on family background and political connections. Gloria's references to her father make political sense since the elder Macapagal is remembered as a good president.

To be a modern president, however, Gloria has to show a more independent stance from traditional power brokers. Cardinal Sin recently lashed out at a proposed divorce bill, calling it immoral. Gloria went a step further calling divorce a plague that would destroy the family.

Megawati's task is probably the more daunting if only because she's at the helm of an enormous and strife-torn country. Scattered over 13,000 islands and divided by hundreds of languages, ethnicities and other cleavages, the country remains potentially explosive.

In both cases, being their fathers' daughters can be a political advantage, but it can also be a liability. Destiny is not the measure of modern politics but is associated with a feudal past. What both need is a vision that spells out how they will lead their impoverished and divisive constituencies.

In these times of instability and uncertainty in both countries, there is a clear contest between the powerful forces for change and the equally, if not more, powerful elements for the status quo. The choice between them is Gloria's and Megawati's to make.

No one expects them to commit political suicide, but these women can best shape their own political destinies by opting in favor of radical change.

Belinda A. Aquino is professor of political science
and Asian studies and director of the Center for
Philippine Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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