If opinion polls are any guide, she may soon become the latest in a string of erratic and ineffective reform-era presidents.

 

"We voted for her before because she was like our mother, she said she would help the little people," said Adi Sujipto, a 27-year-old unemployed construction worker who supports his family by cutting insoles for running shoes.

 

"Now there is even more corruption in the government than before and still, no jobs. She forgot about her supporters and now we'll find someone else to lead the country."

 

The normally reliable poll figures - released on Thursday - by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems show Sukarnoputri, 57, running third behind two retired Indonesian generals with 11.7 per cent of the decided voters.

 

While both she and disgraced former armed forces chief Wiranto, the presidential candidate of the long-time governing party Golkar, have made modest gains in recent weeks, support for her former security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, remains strong at 43.5 percent, IFES reports.

 

Reformist figure

 

The poll results come 10 weeks after the party she leads, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), saw its popular support almost halved in the national legislative elections. Until this year the president was elected by the national parliament.

 

It's a long way to fall for the eldest daughter of the country's charismatic first president Sukarno, who rose to public prominence as a reformist figure and critic of the strongman Suharto, the man who seized power from her father in a palace coup in 1965.

 

Sukarnoputri shot to prominence in 1996 after a feud with the board of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI) she chaired degenerated into a bloody daylong battle between her supporters and an armed mob supported by elements of Suharto's security apparatus.

 

As a woman, Sukarnoputri was
initially barred from the top job

Five people died, close to 150 were injured and almost two dozen people remain missing. Today the so-called Reformasi movement that swept Suharto from power traces its roots back to what has become known as the July 26 Incident.

 

With the collapse of Suharto's New Order regime in 1998, Sukarnoputri's new party, PDI-P, became the people's choice, securing one-third of all votes - by far the best showing in the country's first truly democratic elections since 1955.

 

The rout was all the more impressive for the fact there were 48 parties in contention.

 

Immediately following the election, however, in what would prove to be a signal of things to come, Sukarnoputri eschewed the task of attempting to build the necessary coalition she needed to take the top job.

 

Thus the mother of three was blindsided when a group of influential clerics - among them Hamzah Haz, who would later become her vice-president - banded together to declare that a woman was prohibited from leading the predominately Muslim country.

 

Comeback

 

When Abdurrahman Wahid was elected president, he quickly appointed Sukarnoputri vice-president in an effort to head off imminent street demonstrations by her supporters.

 

Like his predecessor, the eccentric engineer and Suharto insider B.J. Habibie, Wahid proved an ineffective and erratic leader, prone to off-the-cuff comments and abrupt changes in policy that played large in the newly independent and vibrant Indonesian press.

 

Ex-generalYudhoyono has struck
a chord with discontented voters

By the summer of 2001, public patience had reached breaking point, spurred on by allegations of corruption and a failure to kick-start the economy.

 

The army refused to intervene on Wahid's behalf, the cleric from East Java was impeached by the Indonesian parliament and Sukarnoputri assumed the presidency.

 

"It's amazing and kind of sad to see the convergence between the leaders of the post-Suharto era, the way they started with such promise," says one Western diplomat.

 

"In the end, they managed to squander so much political capital and it looks like we're seeing history repeat itself today."

 

Sukarnoputri inherited many challenges, an economy in shambles, crushing foreign and domestic debt, separatist movements in Aceh and Papua provinces, and demands that the power-hungry and deeply corrupt military be brought to heel.

 

Feudal demeanour

 

It didn't take very long for the honeymoon to end. Her critics called her aloof and apparently disengaged, a university dropout more interested in Singapore shopping sprees and her orchid garden than matters of state.

 

"It's amazing and kind
of sad to see the convergence between the leaders of the
post-Suharto era, the way they started with
such promise
"


a Jakarta-based diplomat

At the time her advisers considered her maternal, almost feudal demeanour a selling point that suggested a connection to the average Indonesian.

 

"First of all, she is a politician," said PDI-P insider Heri Achmadi. "But she is also a mother with her attention on her followers, on the people and the people who work with her."

 

Expediency required her cabinet represent many different factions within the political continuum. But palace insiders say that rather than attempting to bind them together in a cohesive group, the president chose to retire from the policy-making process.

 

The result has been a failure to forge a unified vision for Indonesia.

 

The Bali blast reinforced public's
perceptions of bad governance

"The problem is that she's allowed the old guard to rule again from behind the scenes because she's not a hands-on president," says Habibie-era cabinet minister Dewi Fortuna Anwar.

 

"She sees herself as a constitutional monarch but she has no prime minister to handle the day-to-day affairs of state."

 

While terrorism does not rate as a domestic election issue, her administration's failure to respond to domestic terrorist threats spoke to the greater culture of impunity here.

 

Even the October 2002 bombing of a Bali nightclub that killed over 200 people, including more than 60 Indonesians, initially failed to rouse a response.

 

Qualified praise

 

The government has since awakened to the issue and has vigorously prosecuted those responsible for that and other attacks attributed to al-Qaida-affiliated extremists.

 

She signed off on a year-long military occupation of the province known as Mecca's Veranda, Aceh, that officially ended in April.

 

Human-rights organisations have accused the army and police there of widespread abuses. At least 2,000 people have died in the offensive.

 

It has not been all bad news, to be sure. Several high-profile suspected bribe-takers have been taken to court, though many more have been allowed to elude arrest and no substantive steps have been taken to eliminate widespread judicial corruption.

 

"The problem is that she's allowed the old guard to rule again from behind the scenes because she's not a hands-on president"

Dewi Fortuna Anwar, former Indonesian minister

The Indonesian economy has shown signs of modest recovery and Sukarnoputri's administration has made good on promises to reduce and in some cases eliminate subsidies for some staples.

 

Ironically, the moves that have won her qualified praise from abroad are the very same that have undermined her position as someone in touch with the people who brought her to power.

 

"When Mega arrived it was a very exciting time for us, a time when the people really believed they could change the country because for the first time," said 35-year-old Jakarta anti-poverty activist Soetomo.

 

"Now I think the people have become more cynical. They still want to see changes even though the politicians like her often do not listen to their aspirations."