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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Forging a Shaky Alliance

Nationalists and Muslims join in opposition

By Jose Manuel Tesoro / Jakarta


ECONOMIES ARE NOT THE only dominos tumbling in Asia's currency crisis. So, too, are long-held political taboos and self-imposed restrictions, of which Indonesia's were perhaps among the tightest. For the first time in Suharto's long, prosperous but tightly controlled rule, representatives of some of the country's diverse institutions are openly demanding a successor. At their head are Amien Rais, chairman of the 28-million-strong Muslim organization Muhammadiyah, and Megawati Sukarnoputri, the ousted chief of the nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI, by its Indonesian initials). Both have declared their willingness to succeed President Suharto, who is used to running unopposed and in the past has responded swiftly and strongly to any perceived or actual challenges.

So far their stand is little more than symbolic, a rallying point for those who are tired of the status quo but are powerless to change it. The Constitution permits presidential election only through a 1,000-member electoral college, half of which is appointed by the government.

This March, neither Rais, 53, nor Megawati, 51 -- who have linked up -- will be nominated by any of the five officially-recognized factions in the People's Consultative Assembly: the army, regional representatives, the PDI, the Muslim United Development Party (PPP) and the government-backed Golkar. Two factions -- Golkar and the PPP -- have said that Suharto would definitely be their presidential candidate. Rais, a lecturer at respected Gadjah Mada University in Jogjakarta, Central Java, understands the limits of his position. "Our coalition with Megawati is not strong enough," he said Jan. 23 at an evening gathering with activists at Muhammadiyah's spartan Jakarta headquarters. "We are not under the illusion we can do everything."

But as the boldest of challengers to Suharto's power, both Rais and Megawati have found support among progressive and disaffected intellectuals. Megawati also commands favor from Indonesians enamored of her father, Independence leader Sukarno. In student circles, says Bonar Tigor Naipospos, head of a non-governmental organization, Rais and Megawati are being called dwitunggal, the same term applied to Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta, who became president and vice president after Independence. Once the Muslim holidays are over and school reopens, reckons Naipospos, the country may well see more demonstrations calling for Suharto to step down.

The duo is still seeking more allies for what Rais calls their "moral coalition" against corruption, nepotism and authoritarian policies. They invited Abdurrahman Wahid, the revered leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, an established grassroots association of Muslim teachers which counts 30 million members, to a Jan. 15 meeting with other government critics. He did not attend. A few days afterwards, 57-year-old Wahid collapsed at home after suffering a suspected stroke, and is now in a Jakarta hospital.

A meeting between the three, if it had pushed through, would have been highly symbolic. Rais's organization represents modernist, urban Muslims who hew close to classic Islamic doctrine. Wahid's NU, on the other hand, is dominated by traditional Muslims more influenced by local customs. Between the two, they represent Indonesia's major strains of Islam, a religion professed by 88% of the population. The addition of Megawati and her nationalist credentials would have made the group a tough combination.

Though Wahid has often criticized the government, he has, at times, cooperated with people such as Suharto's eldest daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana. Fundamentally, however, he is known to favor political reform. But he has a more communitarian approach than the sectarian Rais. "[Wahid] takes it for granted to cooperate with non-Muslims," points out Islamic scholar Nurcholish Madjid. "Rais is just learning." A sympathizer of Islamist movements, Rais must overcome suspicions by Christians and Chinese, who form a small but influential population. He has also crossed swords with Wahid on more than one occasion. Madjid thinks that it was perhaps fortuitous both men did not appear at the Jan. 15 conference together. Such a meeting, he says, "could easily [turn] into conflict."

It's not clear if Wahid will recover fully. If he does, despite their history of rivalry, Wahid and Rais "are aware they have to support each other, even informally," says political scientist Arbi Sanit. They both believe in the need for political reform, demands for which have increased exponentially in recent months. But the opposition alliance must still reach out to labor, business and the military, all of whom are not entirely convinced the "moral coalition" will provide better leadership than Suharto.


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