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AUGUST 14, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 6

Unrelenting Pressure
Indonesia's Wahid faces up to his political friends and foes. At least he won't be impeached

Indonesian police detectives examine the wreckage of the car of Philippines ambassador to Indonesia Leonides Caday.

Brinkmanship has been a talent of President Abdurrahman Wahid throughout his political career—and especially in the last tumultuous year. He won the presidency almost 10 months ago with some last-minute political maneuvers. A few months later he triumphed in a protracted showdown with a powerful army chief, thereby cementing his authority over the country's military.

This week, Wahid is on the brink again. Starting Monday, 695 members of the country's highest legislative body, the People's Consultative Assembly, will hold their annual meeting, and topic number one is Wahid. Does he have an economic policy? What can he do about separatist and religious violence in Aceh and the Maluku islands? What's behind the frequent juggling of his cabinet? In sum, is Gus Dur—Wahid's commonly used nickname—up to the job?

A few weeks ago, some Assembly members were threatening to use this week's meeting to remove Wahid from office. That notion has been shelved, though not abandoned. "He should be given a chance for two to three months after August," Assembly Speaker Amien Rais told Muslim students last month. "And if he fails to improve himself and the country's economy, the mandate given to him by the people will be removed." Salahuddin Wahid, a longtime critic who is the President's younger brother, agrees that time is running out. "If he doesn't share power and consolidate his cabinet, Gus Dur won't last another six months."

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If verbal pyrotechnics weren't enough, last week brought Wahid some genuine jolts. On Aug. 1, a car bomb exploded outside the Jakarta residence of Philippine Ambassador Leonides Caday, killing two people and injuring 20, including the ambassador. Wahid put the blame on foreign terrorists, presumably Philippine Islamic separatists. But rumors swept the capital that another group might have had more to gain: allies of former President Suharto, forced from office in 1998, who purportedly hoped to create chaos that would discredit the country's new democracy. On Thursday, Wahid's government finally indicted Suharto on corruption charges after months of protests by students. On hearing the news, a small number of them gathered near the former President's Jakarta home and shouted "Hang Suharto."

Wahid, 60 and nearly blind from diabetes and two strokes, has his hands full trying to steady one of the world's shakiest nations. Businessmen and foreign investors are far from convinced that stability is around the corner. Worse still, the shine on Wahid's halo has been tarnished by allegations of fiscal improprieties in the presidential palace.

A significant failing is coming to roost: Wahid has sidelined other political parties and snubbed legislators, whom he once described as behaving like "kindergarteners." Last month, the House of Representatives convened a special session to grill the President on the sacking of two prominent cabinet members. Wahid faced down the legislators, saying he wasn't required to answer. The fact remains, however, that Indonesia now has a multi-party political system. Golkar, Suharto's old party, and Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle control more than half the seats in the Assembly. "Gus Dur has begun to forget that he was elected by a coalition," says legislator Hatta Rajasa of the National Mandate Party. "He will be reminded that those who put him in power can also take constitutional actions against him." Some within the government and the military are discussing the idea of saddling Wahid with a "First Minister" who would run the government.

To calm tensions before this week's meeting, the Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwono X, threw himself a 56th birthday lunch last week and invited Wahid, Megawati, Rais and House Speaker Akbar Tandjung. Journalists crowded outside the sultan's 18th century palace in central Java. The food was nasi tumpeng, a traditional Javanese rice dish. The guests arrived by 11:45 a.m., but at 12:25p.m. Megawati left the palace. Amien Rais, on his departure, told journalists Wahid wouldn't be impeached this week, and his words made headlines. Wahid, asked whether the political temperature was too high, responded: "There will always be problems." Based on his record so far, that's a safe bet.

—With reporting by Zamira Loebis/ Yogyakarta

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