Megawati, Indonesia's Icon of Democracy

Megawati Sukarnoputri, picked on Thursday to run Indonesia's day-to-day government, has been the silent symbol of the giant country's turbulent transition to democracy.

Ten months ago, largely through her own political ineptitude, she had to watch as the country's first democratically chosen presidency was snatched from her grasp and handed to a near-blind Muslim cleric, Abdurrahman Wahid.

She had to settle for the vice-presidency.

But as the expansive and often contradictory Wahid has talked himself into ever deeper unpopularity, Megawati's almost complete absence of comment on anything substantial seems to have raised her credibility.

The daughter of the republic's still immensely popular founding father, President Sukarno, she is an unlikely icon of democracy.

A somewhat taciturn mother of four, she looks ill-at-ease in the public eye and has largely failed in the key task set for her by Wahid as his deputy.

He handed her the enormously difficult job of dealing with renegade provinces, including the violence-torn spice islands.

She made little overt effort to bring peace to the islands where the violence, that has already left thousands dead in a year-and-a-half long bloodbath, has continued unabated.

Earlier this year, she also came under heavy criticism for only belatedly visiting the south Sumatran province after an earthquake that left tens of thousands homeless.

On matters of policy she has rarely spoken and she views the press with clear disdain.

But despite her public reticence, she has been Indonesia's symbol of democracy since the final years of President Suharto, ousted in 1998 as the country headed deeper into political and economic crisis from which it has yet to extricate itself.

Ironically Suharto, the man who pushed her own father from power in the mid-1960s, helped propel her into the unlikely role of icon for the masses by clumsily crushing her political following in 1996.

The popularity of the Sukarno name, and her own stubborn resistance to Suharto's autocratic regime, mobilized millions in her support.

It was enough to give her party — the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle — a substantial victory in 1999 parliamentary elections and make her an apparent shoe-in for the presidency.

But at the last moment her lack of political guile, which some analysts feel may also be arrogance, failed her.

Her popularity is rooted among ordinary Indonesians: the urban poor, the unemployed, students and low-paid workers.

Her real chance came when Suharto's successor, B.J. Habibie, allowed new political parties to form and create what became Indonesia's first real taste of democracy since independence just over half a century earlier.

After a childhood in Jakarta's presidential palace, Megawati and her family found themselves living in modest surroundings after her father was ousted.

Sukarno died under virtual house arrest in 1970 and was buried in a pauper's grave next to his mother with little ceremony.

It is said Sukarno's children once pledged never to become involved in politics. But this changed in the 1980s when Megawati, her flamboyant choreographer brother and younger sister all joined the Indonesian Democratic Party as "vote getters."

Sukarno remains a popular figure with Indonesians, many of whom lack first-hand knowledge of his dalliances with communism and an era of economic chaos.

He was a strong nationalist and a great speaker, and scratchy recordings of some of his speeches can still be bought on Jakarta's streets