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From Our Correspondent: Indonesia Faces a Constitutional Crisis
The conflict between the president and parliament is rooted in the founding document


July 24, 2000
Web posted at 4:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 4:00 a.m. EDT

In most intractable conflicts, both sides are at least half-right -- and that is precisely what makes the divide so unresolvable. So it is with the current face-off between Indonesia's president and the members of its parliament. Last Thursday, July 20, President Abdurrahman Wahid delivered his response to a summons by the 500-member strong People's Representative Council (or DPR, in Indonesian) to explain his sacking last April of two ministers from the DPR's two largest parties. His answer: he did not have to explain anything, because under the country's 1945 Constitution, the DPR did not have the right to demand from him an explanation.

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Wahid's reference to the Constitution is key to understanding his debate with parliament. Indonesia has an odd attitude towards its founding document: while most will agree that the 1945 Constitution is deeply flawed, it is still treated with reverence. The Constitution was hurriedly produced by an "investigating committee" for Indonesian independence, formed in March 1945 by the Japanese invaders, who did not want to make victory easy for the approaching Allies.

Presented with the opportunity to shape the nation, the country's founding fathers almost immediately became embroiled in two great debates, which continue to this day. The first concerns the relation between Indonesia's dominant religion, Islam, and the state; the second revolves around the relationship between the provinces and the center. The impasse was only broken by first president Sukarno, who pronounced a compromise which became the country's umbrella ideology, Pancasila.

The prospect of convening another constitutional assembly has always raised fears that these divisive debates over the very nature of Indonesia would be revived. Indeed, that was exactly what happened when one such assembly, called the Konstituante, was convened in 1958 to devise a replacement charter. The deadlock was resolved on July 5, 1959, when Sukarno dismissed the Konstituante and restored the 1945 Constitution. The move helped his increasingly authoritarian stance, since the 1945 charter, devised by a generation of Indonesian intellectuals strongly affected by pre-war European thought, provided for a strong presidency. (In Europe, such political philosophy helped fascism to blossom.) Given today's political turmoil, touching the 1945 Constitution might trigger even deeper divisions among the nation's leaders.

The post-Suharto consensus thus appears to be that the 1945 document would remain in force. But its imperfections would gradually be repaired through both amendments and explanatory laws. The process was most visible last October, when the People's Consultative Assembly, or the MPR, passed amendments limiting some of the president's powers to appoint government officials. (In fact, at the same session in which Wahid delivered his response, the DPR was also supposed to approve its nominees for the Supreme Court, a power it did not have until last year.) Constitutional reform had begun even earlier than that, in laws that were passed in 1999 allowing for greater regional autonomy as well as expanding some of the DPR's powers.

Strictly according to the text, Wahid's point is irrefutable: The 1945 Constitution does not give parliament the right to interrogate the president. Indeed, the system the charter sets out is clearly executive-centered. Yet in the context of political reform -- as Indonesia struggles to find ways to form a better, more balanced and more representative government -- Wahid appears to be on the wrong side of the argument. By asserting his Constitutional prerogative, he seems to be denying both the context of the charter's construction (and its subsequent preservation) as well as the spirit of change that now infuses Indonesian politics.

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