HONG KONG — Indonesia faces a more profound immediate national crisis than India or Japan — but all three face the same basic political problem: They badly need an effective ruling coalition. In New Delhi and Tokyo, a coalition government is in place. In Jakarta, it isn’t.

As the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) finally convened in Jakarta on Oct. 1, the as-yet unanswered question was: Who is to become the fourth president of the republic? Who will lead Indonesia out of its escalating crisis?

Many had blandly assumed that it would be Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the first president, Sukarno. Her political party won 153 out of the 462 directly elected seats in the 500-member House of Representatives, more than any other single party.

But Megawati, displaying the political naivete of a Sonia Gandhi or a Cory Aquino, has made a critical mistake. She formed a pre-election coalition with Abdurrahman Waheed’s National Awakening Party and with Amien Rais’ National Mandate Party. Had she stuck with that coalition she would have started the presidential race with 238 seats, not enough to win, but enough to give her political momentum.

Instead, Megawati committed the grievous error of failing to cultivate her political allies after the inconclusive Indonesian parliamentary election in June.

Megawati has kept her thoughts to herself but she seemed to think that the mere fact that her party, the Democratic Party of Struggle, had won a little over one-third the votes, and slightly under one-third of the elected seats in the House of Representatives, meant that the MPR had no choice but to chose her as president.

In all this there was more than an echo of

But that simply does not follow. She is confusing autocracy with democracy. A one-third vote means only one thing: Coalitions have to be formed. Megawati has not been forming or fostering coalitions.

As it happened, coalition-building was also an imperative because of the complex structure of the MPR. Megawati may have won one-third of the 462 elected seats for the 500-member House of Representatives (DPR), but this only added up to one-fifth of the seats in the 700-member MPR.

All 500 members of the House are members of the Assembly. In addition to the 462 directly elected members of the DPR, there are 38 appointed military members. In the MPR there are also 135 members elected from the 26 provincial assemblies, plus 65 representatives from professions and occupations, though how these members have been nominated remains something of a mystery.

Given this structure, prediction of the result was even more hazardous. Coalition-building was essential. The smaller Muslim parties including those of Waheed and Rais, faced with Megawati’s post-election indifference, set about building their own. Altogether these parties also have roughly one-third of the elected members of the DPR, the same as Megawati.

Interim President B.J. Habibie, in the wake of the Timor tragedy and a major bank scandal, looks a severely diminished candidate. Yet simply because the other announced candidates are not strong, he is still in the race with an outside chance.

In the past week, Megawati’s aloofness from coalition-building has resulted in her suffering three setbacks.

First, her candidate for speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly was convincingly defeated by the coalition of smaller Muslim parties in alliance with the second largest party, Habibie’s Golkar (which won just over one-quarter of the elected DPR seats). The victor was reformist Rais who had been one of Megawati’s potential coalition partners before the election, but whom Megawati had tended to ignore after the votes were in.

Second, Megawati failed to get her man voted in as speaker of the House of Representatives. The job of parliamentary speaker, in the Indonesian context, takes on additional importance because the holder of that post has power to encourage and steer the consensus-building process, which will be additionally important now that democracy is back in vogue.

This time the coalition of the smaller Muslim parties supported the reformist Golkar candidate Akbar Tandjung. At the last moment Megawati and her supporters threw some of their support to Akbar Tandjung and pretty well abandoned their own candidate — but that was a move of desperation, which could not conceal the political reality: Indonesia’s diverse politics required coalition-building, and Megawati and her advisers had not been building coalitions.

Nor was that all. The third and final blow last week for Megawati was when her other potential coalition partner before the election, Waheed — affectionately known to all as Gus Dur — allowed himself to be nominated as the presidential candidate of the smaller centrist Muslim parties.

Very nearly blind, in poor health after a stroke, it is hard to see Gus Dur’s nomination as anything more than a forceful reminder to Megawati that she will not be chosen to lead Indonesia merely because she is the daughter of Sukarno, but because she has earned that position by winning wider political support.

But if the Golkar party now meets, persuades Habibie to withdraw his nomination, and then nominates another widely respected personality with a talent for building coalitions, Megawati would be in very deep trouble. As it is, she has just one week to do what she should have doing all along — The MPR votes for the president Oct. 20.

Amid the political maneuvering in Jakarta the national crisis has almost been lost to view.

One or other of the candidates — this is where Megawati could have struck a blow for herself — should have come forward to stress the basic truth: Indonesia remains in deep and persistent crisis that requires both national unity and determined action.

After 16 months dithering toward democracy, Indonesia badly needs to be inspired, energized and focused. Seeking a coalition that will back the next president is one thing. But where will that coalition lead? What priorities will it serve? So far, the known candidates have had too little to say on this subject, perhaps for fear of alienating one group or another.

Indonesia needs direction. Instead it gets drift.

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