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Woman Leader Fuels Indonesian Debate

THANASSIS CAMBANIS

This article was written for AP on June 16, 1999. All rights reserved.

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) - The Koran, not Indonesia's constitution, might help decide whether a woman will be the next president of the world's largest Muslim country.

Indonesian clerics, politicians and feminists bickered today over whether opposition figure Megawati Sukarnoputri is suitable for the top job on the grounds of gender.

The daughter of Indonesia's founding president Sukarno has emerged as the frontrunner for the presidency.

Her Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle has taken a commanding lead over 47 other parties in the June 7 parliamentary election, with 60 percent of the votes tabulated. But it is unlikely to win an outright majority in the freest election in 44 years.

Megawati, who is Muslim, now must garner support from minority parties to oust incumbent President B.J. Habibie when a special assembly of 500 legislators and 200 military and government appointees meets in November to select a head of state.

Some Muslim politicians say they will not support a woman president and have criticized Megawati's party for fielding too many non-Muslim candidates.

The conservative, Muslim-oriented United Development Party, running third in the vote count, has declared that the next president should be ``Indonesia's best Muslim son.''

The influential Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals Association also has raised gender concerns.

``Like it or not, there are people who have no problem with a woman being a president, but there are those who cannot accept that,'' said its chairman, Achmad Tirtosudiro.

Other Islamic countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey, have had women heads of government. But Indonesia's three presidents since independence in 1945 have all been men.

About 90 percent of Indonesia's 210 million people are Muslim. Although the sprawling Southeast Asian nation has a tradition of religious tolerance, Islam's political influence has increased, particularly since the downfall of authoritarian President Suharto last year.

Some Muslim politicians say sex discrimination runs counter to the teachings of the Koran, Islam's holy book.

``In the Koran, it is very clear that there is no discrimination whatsoever between men and women. As a Muslim, I can accept that a woman can become a president,'' said Amien Rais, former head of a major Islamic group.

Now chief of the fifth-ranked National Mandate Party, Rais could play a pivotal role in the new Parliament's balance of power. He differs widely on several fundamental policy issues with Megawati and has yet to say whether he will back her candidacy.

Another influential Muslim leader, Abdurrahman Wahid, also has said Islam does not bar women from holding political office. His third-ranked National Awakening Party is expected to form a coalition with Megawati's party.

``It's stupid people who have said that a woman can't be the leader,'' Wahid said before the election. ``They know nothing about Islamic history.''

Ita Nadia, of the Kalyanamitra women's rights group, said those who oppose Megawati for president because of her gender are really attempting to block her agenda for political reform after decades of autocratic rule.

``The ruling elite could not discredit her party,'' Ita said. ``So now they are trying to discredit Megawati.'' 

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