Puppet Presidents

Editor’s note: Dr Kevin W. Fogg is the al-Bukhari Fellow in the History of Islam in Southeast Asia at theOxford Centre for Islamic Studies, William Golding Junior Fellow at Brasenose College, and the Islamic Centre Lecturer in the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. He blogs on the politics and history of Indonesia and Southeast Asia more broadly and has kindly agreed to share this important post that looks at an alleged “puppet presidency” in Indonesia. He has also written several blog posts on Islam in Myanmar, connected to his visit to the country last year.

The news from the last two weeks out of Myanmar has been very good, with my most-trusted election observer calling the polls “mostly fair” and hailing the outcome as reflecting the will of the people, even while decrying the violence and manipulation that marred several districts. (That violence seems to have gotten worse after the election in Shan State, which should cause us all serious concern.)

The outcome was a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD), famously led by Oxford alumna and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The next step, once the new Burmese parliament convenes in the new year, is for this body to select a new president for the country. Even though the NLD commands enough seats in parliament to select the candidate outright (despite the 25% of seats reserved for the military), Aung San Suu Kyi cannot be selected– as my Oxford colleagues have discussed at length, the new constitution of Myanmar was written with the most stringent indigeneity requirements in the world so as to bar her from that office.

In an interview with the BBC two weeks ago, Aung San Suu Kyi laid out very frankly her “rose by any other name” plans, whereby she will field a candidate who meets the requirements of the constitution, but she personally will continue to call all the shots. She said these things so frankly, supposedly to support transparency and openness in her plans. It sounded, though, like a “puppet president” situation, which has been very problematic for at least one of the neighbors.

Indonesia’s 2014 national election saw allegations of a “puppet president” candidate. The then-governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo, popularly called “Jokowi,” was a recent arrival on the national political scene, but he was in the party of former president and overall political strongwoman Megawati Soekarnoputri. (It bears noting that Ibu Mega and Aung San Suu Kyi have a number of parallels as the daughters of founding leaders and independence figures of their respectivecountries. I would not dream of making a comparison about power-hunger, though; ahem ahem.) A number of political opponents in the run-up to the presidential election alleged that Jokowi would be a mere “puppet” for Megawati, an allegation that Jokowi tried to fight against. Sadly, the idea seems to have stuck even after the election, not much helped by the fact that Megawati is doing everything she can to assert her right to control the president as a puppet. Megawati certainly does not have the levels of support in Indonesia that Aung San Suu Kyi has in Myanmar. (Ibu Mega has run unsuccessfully three times for president– in 1999 [indirect election], 2004 and 2009 [direct elections]– and lost every time, only being made Vice-President and being elevated to the top spot in 2000 when then-president Abdurrahman Wahid resigned.) Perhaps, though, she has similar aspirations to run the country from behind the scenes, since pesky democracy (rather than constitutional stipulations) is holding her back from being in front of the curtain.

The results in Indonesia have not been spectacular. The cabinet that Jokowi announced was a tremendous let-downpacked with Megawati’s buddies with just a sprinkling of competent, open-minded leaders. My esteemed colleague Michael Buehler at SOAS has recently caused quite a ruckus in Indonesia with his revelation that lobbyists in the US filed paperwork reporting that they were working for the Indonesian executive branch in organizing Jokowi’s presidential visit to Washington. (Note: I’m on the record supporting his research as responsible.) This seems to be a window on cabinet disfunction, and a president who might not be able to coordinate between his various deputies. The unwillingness of the Jokowi administration to jettison the corruption-tainted Police General Budi Gunawan (and many others in the police, and spreading elsewhere)– seemingly because of ties to Megawati– has also been a major disappointment. Overall, there is concern that Jokowi’s administration is disfunctional because of the different interests trying to pull at the policy strings. Even if he is not a puppet president, he has certainly been battered by waves of political influence from the chairwoman of the party.

Will a puppet presidency work out better for Myanmar? One can only hope so. In Myanmar this would be more transparant (although still skirting the law), and the puppet-master would have real popular support. We are also inclined to see Aung San Suu Kyi as a more responsible figure all-around, although it should be remembered that Megawati Soekarnoputri looked like a great reformer and pro-democracy voice in the 1990s, too.

Whatever comes of this situation, we can be glad for the steps that Myanmar has already taken towards normalization and pray for the best as it continues to look to its future.