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MAY 5, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 17 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Partners -- As In Sparring
Indonesia's top leaders are engaged in a potentially destabilizing tussle for influence

By JOSE MANUEL TESORO Jakarta

On April 20, in a house on Irian Street in Jakarta's residential district of Menteng, two top Indonesian leaders broke fast together. According to People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) chairman Amien Rais, he told President Abdurrahman Wahid: "I do not want to see you overthrown, because I am among those most responsible for bringing you the presidency." It seemed like an apology, but could also have been a warning. For at least a week, tension between the two had put the longevity of Wahid's six-month-old government in question. It touched off a swirl of speculation not seen since his high-profile battle against Gen. Wiranto, the country's former military head and chief political minister.

The tussle between Wahid and Rais had begun in mid-April, when the latter suggested a special MPR session to demand an accounting from the president. The move targeted the government's lackluster performance as well as Wahid's controversial bid to rescind a 34-year-old ban on communism. Rais declared he would never flinch from "tweaking" Wahid's ear, should the Muslim cleric-turned-president be found wanting. Away on state visits, Wahid shot back that if the MPR accepts his explanations, Rais "could later be tweaking his own ears." On April 18, Wahid's National Awakening Party demanded Rais's removal. Retorted the MPR chief: "Only a president can be impeached by an Assembly speaker."

The episode underlines how dependent Indonesia's stability is on cordial relations among its main leaders: Wahid, Rais and Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Where each leans, so do the major social groups that follow them - Wahid's traditional, largely rural, Javanese Muslims, Rais's mostly urban, modernist Muslims and Megawati's hardline secular nationalists. Akbar Tanjung, who commands former Suharto vehicle Golkar and the second-largest bloc of votes in parliament, is another key figure. In the nation's turbulent, post-Suharto transition, all four have competed as often as they have cooperated. Wahid's continuing consolidation of his presidency may now have opened up a new period of friction.

Despite his decisive role in getting Wahid elected over Megawati, Rais has not shied away from public criticism of the president. In early January, he addressed in Jakarta Islamist protesters stoked up by religious strife in Maluku and demanded that the government take responsibility for it. "My heart is hot, my head is hot," cried the MPR chairman. Now, there is admittedly more about which to "tweak" Wahid's ear. Last week, the rupiah fell briefly past 8,000 to the dollar, the most immediate sign of the government's drift in economic policy. (After the International Monetary Fund affirmed its faith in the administration, the currency recovered slightly.)

Complaints about corruption - especially among newly appointed officials - continue. Court rulings against investors or reformers have cast a shadow on the economy. On April 24, Wahid fired two members of his economic team. One was respected investment and state-enterprises chief Laksamana Sukardi, a member of Megawati's party. The other: trade boss Jusuf Kalla of Golkar. Wahid's long-rumored move still invited questions. "He thinks that changing the cabinet automatically will help the economy," says economist Umar Juoro. "I don't know." Whatever the economic benefit, there is a political cost. Some members of both sacked men's parties have demanded that their groups withdraw all their ministers from Wahid's cabinet in protest.

The turmoil is beginning even as the president's stratagems are starting to pay off. On April 21, armed forces chief A.S. Widodo delivered to the president the results of an annual two-day military leadership meeting. The forces had decided that they would give up their "socio-political" function. For 30 years, the dwifungsi (dual-function) doctrine had allowed the military to involve itself in civilian affairs. The move furthers the expulsion of the armed forces from Indonesian politics - a process Wahid began in February by retiring Gen. Wiranto from both the cabinet and active service.

The other significant political achievement of the government is the tempering of communal tensions - which Wahid had engineered along with Rais. In the run-up to the October presidential election, Wahid, then head of the Nahdlatul Ulama mass Muslim organization (which claims 30 million members), visited Rais at the latter's office at Muhammadiyah (another mass Muslim group). The symbolic message was important: that the traditional and the modernist strains of Indonesian Islam, represented by the NU and the Muhammadiyah respectively, could rise above their historical frictions and create an effective coalition. Says Hafiez Luqman of the Islamic Defenders' Front: "The two showed that they could work together."

Can they still? The recent spike in the political temperature has partly to do with Rais's current political needs. While the reserved Megawati has found her spare-wheel role as vice president to her liking, Rais is still struggling to find his place in the public eye. The MPR meets at most once a year to approve items such as constitutional changes; its next session is in August. That leaves Rais's post largely ceremonial the rest of the year. Such factors may account for his fondness for pushing hot-button issues for Muslim voters - like Maluku and communism - to boost his own standing. To give himself a real shot at becoming Indonesia's next president, Rais needs to increase the disappointing 7.4% of the popular vote that his National Mandate Party won in the parliamentary elections last June.

Rais's broadsides also remind Wahid that the MPR boss is very much a player. But Wahid often turns Rais's statements to his own advantage. The president has cannily used criticism to get coalition partners to reaffirm their loyalty. After Rais's January rally, Wahid's insinuation that some parties were out to undermine his government prompted declarations of support from Tanjung's Golkar and Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).

On April 24, Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab warned that such sparring statements give the impression that Indonesia is unstable. He urged greater efforts by everyone concerned to project unity. "When will investors come in?" he lamented. Still, charitable responses to criticism have given Wahid a chance to burnish his democratic credentials. When an April 23 NU rally in Surabaya turned into a forum for blistering verbal attacks on Rais, Wahid gamely declared: "If we are to be democrats, we must be able to cope with our differences."

Even so, such conciliatory pronouncements have not erased the underlying tensions. With the latest reshuffle, the third since Wahid took power, the president has further reduced the number of ministers that his coalition partners have in his cabinet. The Islam-linked United Development Party, the military, Golkar and the PDI-P each now has one minister fewer than before. That none of the replacements came from the same parties has fueled complaints that Wahid is edging everyone else out of their rightful place at the trough of power. Unsurprisingly, Rais has joined the fray. If Golkar and the PDI-P do withdraw their people, he warned on April 25, "that means the administration will enter a condition of endangered legitimacy." How the president's allies-cum-rivals deal with his continuing efforts to curb their clout may determine whose ears get tweaked at the MPR's August session.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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