Asian Neighbors Think Alike

Presidents Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Megawati Sukarnoputri smile for the cameras (Photo: AFP).

The similarities are hard to miss.

Both [Philippines President] Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Megawati Sukarnoputri are the daughters of former presidents. Both were installed in power after their predecessors were impeached amid accusations of corruption and incompetence. And both must deal with a faltering economy and deep political divisions.

Yesterday, a day after he was sacked by Indonesia’s national assembly, Abdurrahman Wahid remained holed up at the presidential palace, questioning his ouster and refusing to give way to Megawati.

When Wahid took the helm as Indonesia’s fourth president, there were hopes that the country’s first freely elected leader could pull his nation from the brink of disaster.

The Asian economic crisis that started in 1997 wreaked its worst havoc on Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation. The riots that erupted as Indonesia’s economy went into a tailspin brought down Suharto, Asia’s longest reigning autocrat. Suharto, however, still managed to hand-pick his successor, B.J. Habibie, who protected the interests of his longtime benefactor until he was replaced by Wahid in October 1999.

Now Wahid is also out of power, and his supporters are threatening to make governance difficult for his successor. Wahid’s election marked Indonesia’s transition to democracy. As in the case of the Philippines, the transition has been painful for Indonesia. Megawati is taking over a nation riven by separatism, a nation whose economy is in ruins.

Like President Arroyo, Megawati is perceived as a member of the elite and is criticized for her close ties to the military. Unlike President Arroyo, however, Megawati is no economist and is considered an intellectual lightweight. And unlike President Arroyo, who has the full backing of the Philippines’ dominant Roman Catholic Church, Megawati will have to court the support of Indonesia’s powerful Muslim clerics, who are allied with Wahid.

Filipinos, who know how tough it can be to revive an economy and nurture a fragile democracy, can only wish Megawati success in her governance. The protracted unrest in Indonesia can make it harder for Asia to recover from the latest global economic slowdown.

As recent years have shown, a fire in one country can quickly engulf its neighbors, turning into a regional conflagration.