Saturday, June 5, 1999

Women leaders
take the spotlight
in Asian elections

By Richard Halloran
Special to the Star-Bulletin


Across troubled South and Southeast Asian nations whose politics, economics, and social orders have been dominated by men for centuries, a handful of strong-willed women are struggling for power with considerable success.

In Indonesia, Megawati Sukar-noputri is doing surprisingly well as she directs an opposition party toward national elections on Monday, which will be only the second free elections since independence in 1949.

Sonia Gandhi in India is also having some success in leading a wrangling Congress Party into her country's third election campaign in as many years.

The two newest faces among these women are in Malaysia, where Wan Azizah Wan Ismail has formed a party to oppose Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has jailed Wan Azizah's husband, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

The other is Marina Mahathir, who is, ironically, Prime Minister Mahathir's eldest daughter and has disagreed with her father on several issues. Wan Azizah and Marina Mahathir were schoolmates as girls.

Elsewhere, Pakistan's former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, has won a round in her appeal of a five-year sentence for alleged corruption, a conviction widely seen as politically motivated. In Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, continues to hold the moral high ground against a junta who refused to permit her dying husband, English scholar Michael Aris, a last visit before he passed away in March.

Sri Lanka's president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, strengthened her position with victories in local elections in January and April but has been unable to resolve a civil war with Tamil separatists. In Bangladesh, squabbling persists between Prime Minister Hasina Wajed and another woman, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

In every instance, these are not ordinary women nor are they leaders of feminist political movements. Rather, they are the daughters, widows, and wives of powerful men, many of whom died violent deaths. Most have been well educated in universities oriented toward the West and in the West itself.

Nor should they be seen as surrogates for departed or jailed husbands or fathers, for they have demonstrated their own steely ambitions. They can be opportunistic, have occasionally resorted to strong-arm tactics, and are no more or less democratic than male competitors. "One shouldn't underestimate the political mettle of daddy's daughter," wrote an Indonesian commentator about Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The first of this sisterhood was President Corazon Aquino of the Philippines a decade ago. Her husband, Benigno, an opponent of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was assassinated in 1983. With aid from the United States, Corazon Aquino drove Marcos into exile in Hawaii and became president in 1986.

In Indonesia, Megawati Sukar-noputri -- putri means daughter -- is the daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno. He was overthrown by its second president, Suharto, who in turn was forced out a year ago.

A retiring woman until she was thrust into the anti-Suharto campaign in 1993, Megawati was barred from politics by Suharto in 1996. She followed what Richard Baker, an East-West Center specialist on Indonesia, called a "very Indonesian way, waiting for a popular, public mandate to come to her."

That mandate came in October last year when 50,000 people turned out to hear her slash at Suharto and his successor, President B.J. Habibie. "Criminals should be brought to justice," she said, referring to alleged corruption under the Suharto regime. She accused Habibie of "dithering and uncertainty."

The elections on Monday are complicated, with five serious and 40 minor parties contending for 500 seats in the legislature. The national outcome will not be known until mid-July. Then will come coalition-building before the parliament picks a president in the fall to take office on Jan. 1, 2000.

Whether Megawati will be a presidential candidate remains to be seen. She has name recognition but little practical political experience. Having grown up in Bali, she is believed to be Hindu in religion in a nation ruled largely by people from Java and which is 90 percent Muslim.

India's Sonia Gandhi is even more an outsider. She was born Sonia Maino in Italy, whence she went to Cambridge in England, where she met and later married Rajiv Gandhi, son of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. After Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister but was voted out in 1989. While seeking a comeback in 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber.

Leaders of the Congress Party immediately tried to persuade Sonia Gandhi to take her husband's place. She declined and retired to her home in New Delhi where politicians beat a path to her door where she exerted influence from behind the scenes. Said an Indian commentator, "No Indian politician has used silence as well as Sonia Gandhi to communicate."

Sonia Gandhi started to appear in public in 1993 but only last year did she accept the presidency of the Congress Party. After Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee suffered a parliamentary vote of no confidence in April, Gandhi tried but failed to put together a ruling coalition. Thus, elections have been called, probably for September.

Several weeks ago, three leaders of the Congress Party asserted that only a native-born Indian should be prime minister. Gandhi resigned in anger but that set off such a cry of support that the dissidents themselves were ousted and Gandhi resumed the presidency. Some Indians, however, have objected to Gandhi because she is a Roman Catholic in a Hindu nation. Whether she will become prime minister is unclear.

In Malaysia, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail stepped into politics as her husband, Anwar Ibrahim, was sentenced to six years in prison on charges seen in Malaysia and elsewhere as having been trumped up by Prime Minister Mahathir to rid himself of a political rival. Wan Azizah has been quoted, "Anwar is a victim of the corrupt system, a system fashioned in the image of a once-respected prime minister who has lost all sense of perspective, all sense of right and wrong, and all sense of reality."

Wan Azizah, a Muslim, studied in a Roman Catholic convent where, she told a magazine in Kuala Lumpur, "Marina Mahathir was my junior at school." After Wan Azizah earned a medical degree in Ireland, she met her husband when he was visiting a patient in her hospital in Kuala Lumpur.

Having formed the National Justice Party, Wan Azizah has suggested that she seeks to emulate Corazon Aquino. "Mrs. Aquino and the people of the Philippines have shown us the dictator can be overthrown," she said, "if the masses draw a line and say, 'enough, no more.' "

The Malaysian prime minister's daughter, Marina Mahathir, is a graduate of Sussex University in England and has built a reputation as an outspoken columnist on women's issues. Pointing to men she says seek to repress women, she has written, "They want us to be at home having babies endlessly, covered head to toe, because they think that's what good women do."

Marina Mahathir, who is chairwoman of the Malaysian AIDS Council, has sought to make Malaysians more aware of AIDS and pleaded for tolerance of those who contract AIDS. Most recently, she has opposed a campaign led by her father's political allies to eliminate homosexual behavior in Malaysia.

She acknowledged, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, that she has come close to defending Anwar Ibrahim, who was accused by Prime Minister Mahathir of sodomy. "We are on the fine line of breaching the gag order," she told the Australian newspaper. "I don't want to be cited for a breach."

Richard Halloran, a former New York Times
Asia correspondent, is a freelance writer
based in Honolulu.

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