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JULY 7 , 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 26 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Nation Adrift
Wahid's consolidation of power puts him on a collision course with parliament — and raises questions over where Indonesia is headed
By JOSE MANUEL TESORO Jakarta

The Indonesian presidency may be the toughest job on the planet. But for a few months after his Oct. 20, 1999, election, most believed that if anyone could do it, it would be Abdurrahman Wahid. The 59-year-old Muslim cleric, popularly known as Gus Dur, had a reputation for being a far-sighted liberal, a believer in both Islam and religious pluralism, and a shrewd political strategist. With a following in the tens of millions from his Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), he boasted a grassroots support rivaled only by that of his vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri. "We're the best team," the half-blind leader is once said to have quipped about himself and his taciturn partner. "I can't see and she can't speak."

Wahid's joke now drips with irony. Giddy with hope for change, both Indonesians and the outside world chose to overlook the two ex-oppositionists' handicaps. But eight months into Wahid's administration, the limitations of Indonesia's leaders have become unavoidable. Disunity at the top, suspicions of corruption and a lack of decisive movement in tackling Indonesia's many problems have all led to the sense that the nation is adrift.

"It's not funny anymore," says Fikrie Jufri, publisher of the newsweekly Tempo, who counts himself among the president's supporters. In late May, his magazine broke the "Bulogate" scandal, in which Wahid's masseur and others were accused of scamming $4 million from the former food distribution monopoly Bulog. More news has since surfaced about the misuse of influence in Wahid's inner circle, including the cancellation of a $75-million power-transmission tender to allow in a Wahid-backed bidder. "There is a worry that there is a smell of KKN [Indonesian initials for corruption, cronyism and nepotism] around this administration," says Jusuf Wanandi of Jakarta's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Economic mismanagement and poor coordination are casting storm clouds over a nascent recovery. Violence and separatist sentiment have reappeared in the outer islands; on June 26, Jakarta declared a civil state of emergency in the Malukus, where Muslims and Christians have been engaged in bitter religious bloodletting. All the while, Wahid has appeared more concerned with traveling abroad and meeting foreign leaders, raising questions about his commitment to domestic issues — and about whether his frail health can withstand constant global travel.

To be sure, the nation's drift can hardly be blamed on Wahid alone. From the outset, he has faced two obstacles: impossibly high expectations and a political atmosphere that can only be described as poisonous. The cabinet Wahid and his allies chose has not measured up to handling the massive state bureaucracy. The legislature has proved less a law-making body than a platform for politicking and pressure by the various parties. The military is preoccupied not with internal reform but with its own factions and frictions. A tough look at Wahid requires an equally tough look at the elite that elected him. For the post-Suharto era is shaping up to be not one of more democracy but one of narrow self-interest.

The current rancor can be traced to April 24, when Wahid sacked two members of his cabinet — Trade and Industry Minister Jusuf Kalla of the former ruling party Golkar and Investment and State Enterprises Minister Laksamana Sukardi of Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). On June 29, the DPR, as parliament is known, was to decide whether to officially summon Wahid to explain his decision.

The president's move was troubling to Indonesian politicians because it appeared to signal unambiguously that he had given up on the ungainly coalition of Islamic, nationalist, bureaucratic and military interests that had put him in power — and which had, until then, divided up the state posts among them. In the past eight months, Wahid has consolidated his power at their expense. In contrast to his reputation as an accommodating democrat, Wahid has been almost ruthless in sidelining allies and shoring up his and his party's position. "The signs are already there," says student leader Sigit Adi Prasetyo, "although we cannot yet prove if this is the form of a new authoritarian government."

In January, the president replaced the head of the important Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency (IBRA). In February, he bundled Gen. Wiranto out of the cabinet, paving the way for the rise of officers more loyal to him than to the influential ex-military boss. Then in April, Wahid fired the two economic ministers, turning their portfolios over to trusted aides, one a member of his own National Awakening Party (PKB).

His latest target is the central bank governor. On June 21, his attorney-general Marzuki Darusman announced that he had detained Bank Indonesia (BI) chief Syahril Sabirin as a suspect in last year's $80-million Bank Bali slush-fund scandal. In a written statement, Sabirin had accused Wahid of hardball tactics. Darusman, he claimed, relayed to him on March 1 the president's ultimatum: resign or be dragged into the Bank Bali investigation. Sabirin refused, taking refuge behind a 1998 law guaranteeing BI's independence.

On June 18, Wahid complained that Sabirin's public exposure of his conflict with the president "means that he doesn't care about our market. He doesn't feel responsible for our economic condition." Wahid often explains each of his moves as a step toward noble ends, be it strengthening civilian rule or building a cleaner, more effective government. Yet his tactics can lean just as often toward Niccolo Machiavelli as Nelson Mandela.

To remove Wiranto, for example, the president used the general's alleged involvement in the violence surrounding last August's East Timor referendum, even though a highly placed source in the attorney-general's office admits that as of May, the government still had no evidence to prosecute Wiranto. In his statement, Sabirin alleged that Wahid showed him a file purporting how the BI governor had lied under oath, an offense that carries a seven-year jail sentence. The president, says Sabirin, explained "that if I stepped down from my post, then the legal process against me would not be continued."

If the president succeeds in replacing the BI governor, he will have, in less than a year, seized control of the government's legal monopoly on force, as well as the state's finances. He has no rival for authority in the armed forces, while his people hold sway over IBRA, the government's trade and licensing powers, state enterprises and the privatization portfolio. With BI will come control over interest rates, the banking system and the currency.

Why is Wahid, the supposed democrat, gathering up so much power? Probably in some ways to boost the former NU chairman and his people. "For very long, the NU has been marginalized," says scholar Muslim Abdurrachman, a close friend of the president. The organization, which counts some 30 million members, is centered around a Java-based network of Islamic boarding schools called pesantren and their Muslim scholars-cum-community leaders called kyai. This traditional, largely rural Muslim organization had long lost out to more urbanized, modernist Muslims for high posts in government. "There is a kind of jealousy," Abdurrachman points out, "a desire to bring NU to modernity."

Many of Wahid's decisions bear the imprint of his pesantren background (see story page 30). Why does he appoint family members (such as his brother Hasyim Wahid, who relinquished his post in IBRA after widespread public criticism) or trusted friends (such as Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab, implicated in the power-transmission contract cancellation) to key positions despite questions about their qualifications? "This is the pattern of a kyai, who promotes his khadam [trusted servants]," explains Abdurrachman.

Still, consolidation of power is expected of almost every newly elected chief executive — especially in Indonesia. "No matter how democratic you are, once you are in power in Indonesia, you cannot but be autocratic," says Wahid's brother Hasyim. Thus the question becomes what kind of autocrat one opts to be — cruel or benevolent? Wahid has positioned himself as the best hope for reform, as a bulwark against the military, political Islam and Suharto-era forces. His struggle against the "status quo," says Wahid's official biographer Greg Barton, "is a very personal thing — him getting his way is his barometer of how well everything is going. He is not behaving like a modern president. But no one ever has in Indonesia."

Wahid's consolidation has put him on a collision course with parliament. "Everyone competes for hegemony," says PKB lawmaker Ali Masykur Massa. "The DPR wants to have the main role, so whatever is done by the president is always considered wrong." Indeed, MPs from Golkar and the PDI-P have been circulating a petition to summon Wahid officially before the 500-member parliament. By June 23, the effort had raised 277 signatures. Amien Rais, speaker of the upper house, or the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), may have nominated Wahid as presidential candidate last October, but he is now the cleric's shrillest critic. On June 17, he complained: "Gus Dur has not yet shown his leadership." Wahid's brother Hasyim retorts that the lawmakers are exerting pressure simply to extract privileges from the government. "Most of the parliament members are extortionists," he says. An MPR session is due in August, which will provide legislators with the opportunity to grill — perhaps even impeach — the president.

The tension between Wahid and the parliamentarians, not to mention the confusion engendered by his unpredictable leadership style, does not bode well for the resolution of Indonesia's problems. The national debt — $134 billion, or 83% of the GDP — can only become manageable with prudent fiscal policies, but initial signs are that they may not be forthcoming (see story page 34). According to a 1999 law, Wahid's government must also complete in two years a difficult and complex decentralization of revenues and power to the regions — which, if mishandled, could not only damage state finances but weaken Jakarta against separatist sentiment (see story page 36). Another challenge is declining law and order, reflected in both rising crime and unending violence in the outer islands. Wahid's intervention in the military has left it even more riven with internal factionalism.

At the moment, disunity, mutual suspicion and a desire for access to government spoils mean that none of Wahid's opponents are likely to muster a credible challenge to the president. Thus Wahid may sail through the August MPR session with nothing more than a reprimand from the assembly. That would leave Indonesia with a president who prefers complete control — and no system to check him.

As Indonesia has learned twice before with Sukarno and Suharto, leaving national regeneration in the hands of one man is an enterprise that is by its nature fragile and, sooner or later, destructive. So much becomes dependent on one man's capabilities, limitations, beliefs, even delusions. In a June 20 statement from Cairo, Wahid claimed that ex-president Suharto would turn over $25 billion in his alleged assets to the state. "We will be able to repay our debt to the IMF and the World Bank," he said confidently. "We will be free to regulate our own country." While some in Jakarta believe such a dream deal is possible, others are less convinced. "With Gus Dur," worries Abdurrachman, "dreams and optimism are the same altogether."

What is Wahid to do? In the short term, he must address his government's growing credibility problem. This means in part cleansing his circle of those who are taking advantage of his power, whether old friends, supplicant businessmen or family members. "He has to be holier than the pope," advises one senior Indonesian executive. But Wahid might do without one papal prerogative: infallibility. If he starts listening to public criticisms instead of dismissing them out of hand, he just might reduce tensions with other politicians and prove that his consolidation of power is indeed to advance democracy.

Acknowledging his limitations should also lead to assembling a better team. Given the patchiness of the current cabinet's performance, many are putting their hope in a new, more capable batch of ministers, at the latest after the August MPR session. There are also suggestions that Wahid appoint a prime minister for administrative tasks such as debt and civil-service management. Ironically, given most oppositionists' inexperience, Wahid may have to turn to Suharto-era powers — the military and Golkar — for the necessary expertise.

Yet all this, in a sense, would require him to leave behind many of his old habits. It would mean he has to act more presidential — to take more careful, more realistic and thus firmer stands, and to pay attention to fulfilling standards of behavior for a national leader.

Wahid is nothing if not changeable. But he is also stubborn. If he fails to adapt, he risks more turmoil. "Even if he passes in August, in two to three months' time the politicking will start up again," says Australia-based academic Marcus Mietzner. "It's a recipe for instability." Wahid is still far from being the answer to Indonesia's prayers. Indeed, he probably needs Indonesia to pray for him.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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