The crowd was a sea of red -- red T-shirts and headbands, towels and flags, baseball caps and berets.
And when the bus carrying presidential candidate Megawati Sukarnoputri approached the soccer stadium last Friday, the throng worked itself into a frenzy, some reaching out to touch the windows, others clambering atop trees and water towers and roofs for a glimpse of the woman who has become a beacon of Indonesia's political opposition.
"For 32 years, Mega has been stepped on," said a local trader named Sarwindi, who had waited four hours in the scorching heat for a chance to see his hero. "Now it's time for her to come back!"
"There's only one person to lead this nation, and it's Megawati," said another local businessman, Banuri Suhendra, who was sporting a Megawati baseball cap and T-shirt.
But when the focus of this adulation stepped onto the stage, through a phalanx of security men, her short speech was anything but inspirational. She urged her supporters to remain disciplined and avoid violence. She asked for a show of hands to see who in the crowd was registered to vote (nearly all said they were). She warned that "there are those who will try to sabotage the elections -- we cannot let them."
She led the crowd in a short song, then she urged them to be careful going home. And in less than 10 minutes, she was gone, the bus again snaking through the cheering crowds toward the provincial airport.
It has been that way for weeks, from violence-plagued Ambon city in the east to Sumatra province in the west, as Megawati continues her populist campaign for the Indonesian presidency, beginning with parliamentary elections on June 7. Her crowds are by far the largest and most enthusiastic; the stadium here at Lampung in South Sumatra province was said to hold 100,000 people, with many more jammed into the streets outside. But her speeches are mostly short and largely devoid of substance, rarely revealing even a hint of what she stands for or where she would take this country if the new parliament chooses her.
It's a paradox that many of her opponents, as well as Jakarta's educated elite, find frustrating: The most popular candidate in the race for president, and the only politician with anything approaching "star" status, remains something of an enigma. She is a blank slate on which the poor and dispossessed can sketch all their aspirations. She is a symbol of defiance, viewed as one of the only presidential candidates who actually suffered under ousted president Suharto: Her father, Sukarno, was ousted as president, and Suharto orchestrated Megawati's removal as head of the small opposition Indonesian Democratic Party in 1996.
Despite her mass following and the reverence in which her supporters hold her few can say exactly what she would do if elected.
To her critics, her reluctance to speak publicly in a detailed way on policy -- particularly on how she would revive Indonesia's stagnant economy -- has made hers something akin to a stealth campaign, with the candidate flying out of the range of the issues debate. Said a rival's strategist, "Megawati is not interested in coming out of the closet."
Her reticence has raised questions about how much the 52-year-old former housewife understands about the intricacies of government. In a recent interview, she described how she learned politics as a college student during her father's last turbulent days. She was expelled from university in Bandung in 1966 when she was 19 and never returned.
"She has a good sense, she has keen instincts," said Wimar Witoelar, a political commentator. "But she's not equipped to articulate economic planning or economic thinking."
Witoelar, however, does not believe that is a handicap for Megawati, who he thinks would be important as a symbol marking a clean break with the corruption of the Suharto era. "We need a president who, once she's in there, doesn't talk too much, doesn't say too much," he said. "At this point, it doesn't matter if we have a rocket scientist; we have a rocket scientist, and look where we are now." The incumbent president, B.J. Habibie, is an aeronautical engineer.
Even if she does not talk policy in her speeches, many of her views already are well known from interviews and from her party's policy platform. She opposes federalism and favors a strong central government, but she says the provinces should get a greater share of the funds generated by their resources. She believes Habibie erred in coming up with a "hasty" formula that could grant independence to East Timor, and she would like to renegotiate the independence deal. She also says corruption cases against Suharto and his family should be pursued more vigorously.
On reviving the economy, she laid out her views in detail in an interview on a flight back from a visit to Ambon on Tuesday. "In the short term, the very first thing we have to do is . . . respond in a social safety net way to the hunger and poverty people are feeling as a result of this crisis," she said. "In the medium term, it is essential that we restore the confidence of investors through transparency and law." She also rejected the notion that there is any conflict between increased spending for the poor and sticking to the strict budget discipline favored by foreign lenders.
But detailed policy statements may not be necessary, if Megawati can count on her strategy of essentially running out the clock. Most preelection surveys say her new Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle, or PDI-Perjuangan, will lead the crowded field of 48 parties to win a plurality next Monday.
The new parliament will form the core of a body that will pick the new president later this year. The betting is that if PDI-P does well, Megawati, the party's chairman and unifying symbol, will likely be named Indonesia's fourth president since it became independent 50 years ago. Her chances were boosted when two other major opposition parties, the National Awakening Party and the National Mandate Party, led by Muslim scholar Amien Rais, agreed to work with PDI-P to oppose Golkar, the ruling party, giving the three parties together the hope of winning 50 percent of the popular vote.
Megawati's advisers exude quiet confidence. "I think we're going to get the largest share of the votes," said party treasurer Laksamana Sukardi, an influential confidant of Megawati. "It's become like a quiet revolution. . . . This election is a peaceful revolution, where the people will decide." He predicted PDI-P will win at least 40 percent of the parliamentary vote. The huge turnout here in Lampung, he said, "is typical. It's almost the same everywhere," and other analysts agreed.
Megawati is more cautious. During a stop in the VIP lounge of the Lampung airport, indulging in a late afternoon snack of fish ball soup and sweets, Megawati was asked whether she felt confident of victory.
"Well, all that counts is June 7," she said. "There can still be a lot of manipulation. But we hope not."
CAPTION: Indonesian presidential candidate Megawati Sukarnoputri gets crowd response at a rally in Cibinong, near Jakarta. Her party and two others are major challengers to the ruling Golkar party.
CAPTION: Populist leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, waving party's flag at a campaign rally in February, is a symbol of defiance.