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Anastasia Vrachnos-Sipa.
But Megawati could well be waiting for Wahid to fall.

The Season of Scandal
Just how much trouble is the president in?

Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri's sunny smiles at the Aug. 26 induction of Indonesia's new cabinet made it seem as if the past three days had never happened. It was easy to forget that she had been absent at the Aug. 23 announcement of the line-up, furious because President Abdurrahman Wahid, despite a public promise to share power with her, had shut her trusted aides and party members out of it. Her grin quashed the rumors, which had rocked the rupiah and the stock market, that she might resign to show her anger. And if she felt any misgivings about Wahid's Aug. 25 presidential decree, which puts her in charge of managing a cabinet not of her choosing, her beaming face gave no sign of it.

Despite Wahid's treatment of her, Megawati has apparently decided to stick with him. "Who says I want to resign? I am staying where I am," she told gathered journalists. It certainly had not looked that way the evening of the cabinet announcement, when Megawati had been in such a hurry to leave the palace that she drove herself home to her private residence. (It was the second time Megawati had left Wahid in anger. The first was in October 1999, when the wily, half-blind Muslim cleric pipped Megawati, leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle or PDI-P, in the race for the presidency despite appearing to back her.) A friend quotes her as saying after the cabinet debacle: "I feel betrayed by the person I protected. Again, he cheated me at the last minute."

So why the change of heart? Well, Megawati is a politician. As are most of the 500 members of the Indonesian parliament, or DPR, which on Aug. 28 voted overwhelmingly to use its right of investigation to uncover the truth behind two Wahid-linked scandals. Wahid's willingness to flaunt political convention has often served him well. But now perhaps enough of Indonesia's elite have been burned to jeaopardize Wahid's survival as president. So while Sukarno's daughter is at the president's side, and the DPR politicians against him, both may actually share the same eventual goal — to find a way, somehow, to a future without the stubborn president.

How stubborn is evident in his cabinet choices. First, he sidelined everyone from the PDI-P and its newfound ally, ex-ruling party Golkar, which together dominate parliament after having won over half the popular vote in the June 1999 parliamentary elections. Then the president appointed to the key post of finance minister his friend Priyadi Praptosuharjo, a lightning rod for scandal. Priyadi had already flunked the central bank's "fit and proper test" when he was proposed earlier this year to lead Bank Rakyat Indonesia (BRI), a state institution. Wahid's defense of his choice of Priyadi: "I've known him for 16 years."

At BRI, Priyadi, who does not have a degree in finance but in fisheries, had been considered too lax in disbursing credit, especially to large corporations, at favorable interest rates and often in the absence of adequate collateral. Among the borrowers was the textile-and-machinery concern Texmaco, which now owes some $2 billion to the government. "Almost all of the funds he channeled got stuck and could have bankrupted BRI," says ex-BRI manager Martono, who last year exposed hundreds of millions of dollars lost in loans to large companies by BRI, which is supposed to focus on small- to medium-size businesses and ordinary depositors.

Soon, the president may be too preoccupied with protecting himself to defend his ministerial choices. The DPR plans to spend the next two months investigating a $4-million swindle by Wahid's masseur Suwondo of the onetime state food monopoly, as well as the $2-million Wahid "gift" he said he received from the Sultan of Brunei but had not reported to the government. Wahid, also known as Gus Dur, and his aides are already busy fending off a sordid story in local media that alleged he had an extramarital affair while still chair of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama.

Those are just Wahid's political problems. Later this year, he has to face the potentially explosive implementation of fuel subsidy reductions. His cabinet must format the first budget under expanded regional autonomy, which is expected to reduce central government income from the resource-rich provinces, and fulfill expectations of economic recovery. His defense establishment must control the continuing violence in eastern Indonesia and declining law and order. Says Teten Masduki of Indonesia Corruption Watch: "I don't think he can handle this."

Little surprise then that Megawati has chosen to bide her time. Insiders in her office say she has opened discussions with former armed forces chief Wiranto, another Wahid rival, while planning her own government should Wahid's collapse under a mountain of controversy and failure. "Just let Gus Dur keep going as he is and we will see where we stand in three months' time," says an MP close to the vice president. "We do not believe his style will change, and that means she will become the next president." No matter how many vultures circle the president, the unpredictable Wahid may remain his own worst enemy.

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