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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 12, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 45

The Rise - and Rise - of Amien Rais
Is the MPR chief merely kingmaker, or the power behind the throne?
By JOSE MANUEL TESORO Jakarta


Rais took a leading role in forming the new cabinet David G. McIntyre - Black Star

For a few weeks in October, Amien Rais was the man of every hour. When Indonesians switched on their televisions to watch their 695-member People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) in action, the camera invariably centered on its impish chairman, whose gavel bracketed every plenary session and whose decisions guided each discussion. Now that the MPR has chosen the country's president and vice president, is the former oppositionist headed for a one-year recess, along with his Assembly? Don't bet on it. Out of the MPR's maneuvers, the ambitious Muslim leader has emerged just as much - or even more - a winner as Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia's fourth president. Indeed, Rais, 55, now wields immense power behind the scenes.

Formally, the MPR chief occupies a peculiar spot in an idiosyncratic political structure. Unlike Indonesia's parliament, which meets regularly, the Assembly is at most an annual affair. The MPR, though, has the power to hire - and, theoretically, fire - the country's top two leaders. It can also pass constitutional amendments and guidelines that both parliament and president must follow when enacting or implementing laws. At the moment, a 90-strong MPR working group is designing amendments to trim presidential powers and grant more authority to the Assembly and parliament. The MPR will decide on the changes when it meets again next August.

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Myanmar: A Tale of Two Countries
Our correspondent goes on assignment to ASEAN's No. 1 pariah - and discovers that nothing is quite as it seems

Malaysia: The Leader in Waiting
Tengku Razaleigh could well be Mahathir Mohamad's heir apparent - if he can win his home state
• Claims, Counter-Claims: The new routine in Malaysian politics
• Meanwhile, at the Front: On the campaign trail in Kelantan
• ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Full Interview
'What Will Be Will Be' - That's Razaleigh's fatalistic take on becoming a future leader. Sure

Forum: Diplomatic License
An Asiaweek-PECC roundtable considers the regional impact of the East Timor situation

Indonesia: The Rise - and Rise - of Amien Rais
Is the MPR chief merely kingmaker, or the power behind the throne?

Thailand: The Politics of a Debacle
More fallout from the Krung Thai Bank affair

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Informally, Rais has a far more active role as leader of the Center Axis, a coalition of Muslim-based parties that catapulted Wahid past his ally and former presidential front-runner, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Nominating Wahid was a political masterstroke. Besides creating a candidate around whom anti-Megawati forces in the MPR could rally, the move split the longstanding alliance between Wahid's National Awakening Party (PKB) and Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). It brought the PKB over to the Center Axis. In the end, the margin between Wahid and Megawati was 60 votes - about the size of the bloc the PKB commanded. So Wahid partly owes his position to Rais, who once chaired the mass Muslim group Muhammadiyah, a rival of Wahid's Nahdlatul Ulama.

In return, Rais gained influence over Wahid's new government. On Oct. 21, Wahid told visitors he would leave the cabinet composition to Rais, though he added that Megawati, army leader Gen. Wiranto and ex-ruling party Golkar chief Akbar Tandjung would have their say. The MPR chairman secured choice posts for his friends, sidelining even PKB and PDI-P stalwarts for key portfolios such as finance and education.

Rais favored those who helped him assemble the Center Axis. Australia-based academic Arief Budiman says Rais plainly wants loyal operatives in positions of power. "Amien is an empire-building person," he adds. One key appointment is the new Finance Minister Bambang Sudibyo, from Jogjakarta's Gadjah Mada University, where Rais taught. Sudibyo, 47, holds an accounting doctorate. More importantly, he was the one who crunched MPR vote numbers and showed Rais how a united Muslim coalition - with Wahid as its candidate - could snatch the presidency from both Golkar and PDI-P.

Rais has been quick to defend Sudibyo, an untested academic whose appointment financial markets and multilateral agencies have greeted with caution. The MPR head reacted angrily to a suggestion reportedly made by new U.S. ambassador Robert Gelbard that Sudibyo should not replace Glenn Yusuf at the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency (IBRA), which reports to the Finance Ministry. "This is a direct, concrete intervention with an element of insult," said Rais, who went on to warn ASEAN countries against intervening in Indonesia's affairs. Sudibyo himself responded: "I won't be pressured by anyone. I also have strong political back-up."

Yusuf's possible replacement seemed to have less to do with Sudibyo than with another Rais pal, Fuad Bawazier. Finance minister in Suharto's final, two-month cabinet who keeps close ties with the ex-president's children, Bawazier gained an MPR seat as part of Rais's "Reform Faction." He had angled for his old job, but a public outcry denied him that post and obstructed a seat on Wahid's National Economic Council. Bawazier's purported next target: head of IBRA, which manages more than $90 billion in distressed assets.

But Yusuf has since received Wahid's personal assurance that he will keep his position. In fact, the tussle over the IBRA post indicates the unresolved debate over Indonesia's economic direction. For decades, Western-trained technocrats, who readily accepted advice and aid from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, butted heads with non-government groups, state-owned companies, Muslim businessmen and Suharto interests - all of whom have more checkered ties with multilateral institutions and globalization. The figures now gaining top posts in Jakarta could have an effect on the balance of power. Bawazier, who has Wahid's ear as well as Rais's, is known to be a strong opponent of IMF policies.

Despite concerns over how Rais has so far used his power, most observers agree that the current Wahid-Megawati-Rais combination is still the best political result for the country. It was certainly so for Rais, whose National Mandate Party won not much over 7% of the popular vote in June's parliamentary polls. From his days as a fiery Muslim critic of Chinese and Jewish interests to his transformation into a national reform champion and then the leader of a secular, open party of ideas, Rais has proven his skill at adapting to the political currents. In the process, he has learned moderation.

One constant, however, is his ambition. In the final hours of the presidential election drama, Rais turned down Golkar's offer to nominate him as its candidate instead of B.J. Habibie. But associates say that he also kept hoping Wahid would decline the nomination so he could be the Center Axis candidate himself. In any case, the Axis's success now opens up the prospect of forging a single Muslim political vehicle. That gives Rais another goal during the Wahid administration - planning for the next presidential election. His own.

With reporting by Dewi Loveard/Jakarta

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