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AUGUST 18 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 32 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Anastasia T. Vrachnos.
Holding on. Avoiding impeachment President Wahid agrees to devolove power.

Wahid Stands His Ground
As a newly empowered assembly tests its arm
By PENNY CRISP & WARREN CARAGATA Jakarta

ALSO:
Golkar Stirs the Party Pot: Suharto's former lapdog weighs its options

As one diplomat noted last week, President Abdurrahman Wahid's true legacy to Indonesia could end up being a complete reinvention of the relationship between the executive and parliament. Certainly, messages suggesting that were brought home to him as the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) convened to hear his accountability report. From various sources, including parliament's second-largest party, Golkar, came the suggestion that Wahid should either devolve some day-to-day power to his vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, or appoint a First Minister to take some reins. Eventually, Wahid agreed. "I will charge the vice president with executing the daily technical tasks, to draw up the cabinet working agenda and to establish the focus and priority of the government," he told the assembly.

The president also pledged to carry out a cabinet reshuffle that would result in a "solid and professional" team. First, though, he apologized to the nation's highest legislative body for his shortcomings and asked for more time. "Please have faith in us," he said. "I'm learning from the failings of the past 10 months and can make many improvements."

In fairness, this MPR session was a learning experience for everyone — not least the 695 elected and appointed members. Never before had they had the power to even speak, let alone consider impeaching a non-performing chief executive. Under former president Suharto, no opposition was tolerated. But since the country's first democratic election last year that eventually delivered to Wahid the presidency, all the rules changed.

Now, instead of demanding MPR blanket approval every five years, the president must report annually on just how well he has carried out the MPR's Broad Outline of National Direction. The MPR also has proposed that presidential and vice-presidential tenure be limited to two five-year terms, and that the power to pass laws rest with parliament, not the president. Before Wahid's address, assembly members even considered a means to extend the annual session to a further, special session. This could have evaluated Wahid's report and perhaps initiated moves to impeach him. In the end, representatives decided that the power was not needed — not this time.

Having decided to accept Wahid's explanations, the MPR debate turned to the military. Reform groups insisted that the military relinquish its political role — a main battle cry of students who helped topple Suharto. Under Wahid, the armed forces and police hold just 38 seats in the 500-seat lower house, the People's Representative Assembly (DPR). Under Suharto, they had 75. While the army cannot vote in elections, all of the lower house forms part of the MPR, and reformers want the military out of the action altogether. Wahid is credited with wresting back from the armed forces much of their political clout, but Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) and Golkar are in favor of keeping the military seats at least until 2004. Wahid has not commented on the wrangle — but then, he had other things on his mind. First was his summonsing by a South Jakarta court as a witness in the trial of the "Bulogate" prime suspect, former deputy chief of the State Logistics Agency, Sapuan. Second was the effect of political uncertainty on the problematic economy.

So far, the economy has managed to grow at respectable rates despite a series of blunders and missteps. The problems culminated in April when the International Monetary Fund grew so frustrated with the pace of economic reform that for two months it delayed release of a $400-million payment under its $5-billion loan. Recent data show the economy grew 4.1% in the second quarter, compared to the same period a year earlier, ahead of estimates. But economists have warned that such momentum may not be maintained. According to Sri Mulyani, secretary of Wahid's National Economic Council, the recovery from the near-complete collapse of the economy during the Crisis remains weak. "The public is not secure yet," he says. "It is skeptical that the recovery is real and sustainable."

While Wahid and the MPR are rewriting the way politics is played in Indonesia, there is little relief in sight for its people. How long Indonesians scraping to get by will be content to wait patiently may ultimately be the country's biggest concern.

With additional reporting by Dewi Loveard and Arif Mustolih/Jakarta

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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