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Popular Indonesian Who Was Denied Presidency Gets No. 2

By David Lamb
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- jakarta, indonesia

A day after denying her the presidency, the Indonesian assembly elected Megawati Sukarnoputri vice president Thursday in a bid to restore national unity.

The largely ceremonial post has taken on added significance because the man who defeated Megawati for president, Abdurrahman Wahid, is partly blind, has suffered two strokes and is so frail he needs help to rise from a chair.

The health of the 59-year-old president aside, the Wahid-Megawati team is an unusual choice to lead the world’s fourth most populous nation into the 21st century. Neither has previously held public office, neither has articulated a blueprint for Indonesia’s future, neither has shown much previous interest in politics. Megawati does not have a college degree and has held only one job, in a flower shop.

But though Megawati comes from a privileged background as the daughter of founding President Sukarno, she is hugely popular among the disenfranchised masses. Her election was clearly designed to quell unrest in the streets and rebuild a sense of common purpose in this diverse and fractured country of about 13,000 islands and more than 200 million people.

Her supporters, joined by bands of jobless thugs, had rampaged through this capital and at least 12 other cities Wednesday after Wahid was elected president by the 700-member People’s Consultative Assembly. There were fears of renewed violence if she didn’t get the No. 2 spot, especially because her Indonesian Democratic Party in Struggle was the top vote-getter in June’s election for the assembly, with 34 percent of the popular vote.

Just before the vice presidential ballot, two influential figures -- Gen. Wiranto, chief of the armed forces, and Akbar Tanjung, chairman of the Golkar Party -- withdrew their candidacies, citing the need for national unity.

That left Megawati to face Hamzah Haz, chairman of the Muslim-oriented United Development Party. She defeated Haz handily, 396-284.

“I thank God for this, and I will do my best for the republic of Indonesia,” she said.