Wahid’s Political Fate Turns on National Unrest


This country’s honeymoon with its president has faded fast as Indonesians confront a sobering reality: Abdurrahman Wahid cannot make the sun rise in the West.

Numbed by renewed student protests, sectarian bloodshed and economic woes, many of the same people who cheered the October election of the populist Muslim cleric now are calling for his impeachment. They point to his unpredictability, his Lone Ranger style of decision-making, his inattention to detail. Compounding the disenchantment is a slew of scandals sweeping through the corridors of power.

With public frustration growing and vigilantism on the rise--the main hospital in Jakarta, the capital, has treated or buried 103 victims of street justice this year, including five thieves burned to death this month--the military waits and assesses.

One senior officer warned that the army could not stand idly by if chaos and anarchy threatened Indonesia’s territorial integrity.


But a coup is unlikely, as is impeachment. The latter would require a two-thirds majority of the national assembly, which meets in early August, and anti-Wahid forces don’t have those kinds of numbers, political analysts say.

In addition, few observers think that Indonesia’s passive, aloof vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, has the mettle to lead the world’s fourth-most-populous nation, a land of 212 million people, 17,000 islands, hundreds of languages and no shared vision of the future a full two years after the overthrow of strongman President Suharto.

A coup is unlikely because the military is demoralized, with top officers under investigation for human rights abuses in Indonesia’s former province of East Timor, and already unable to handle strife in, among other far-flung places, the Moluccas and the Sumatran province of Aceh.

The military might be able to restore stability by seizing power, but the price would be international isolation and pitched battles against students unwilling to surrender hard-won democratic rights. The tremors would rumble through all Southeast Asia.


“So far, the internal unrest and economic shocks that Indonesia has experienced have not significantly affected the rest of the region,” said Donald K. Emmerson, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Asia/Pacific Research Center. But “two-fifths of all Southeast Asians are Indonesians. So the well-being of the region is necessarily affected by instability in Indonesia, even if such instability lacks ramifications beyond its country of origin.”

It’s difficult to know if what one sees in Indonesia today are the robust signs of an emerging democracy--rooted in the end of Suharto’s 32-year rule--or the symbols of an out-of-control democracy in which the populace doesn’t know that freedom has limits and civic responsibilities.

Demonstrations, some of them violent, once again spring up almost every day in Jakarta, many around the home of the 79-year-old Suharto, who is under house arrest while being investigated for corruption. Protests also target the government’s slow response to a June 4 earthquake on the island of Sumatra that killed 125 people, or a myriad of social and political causes. “Save Humanity!” one protester’s sign read.

Wahid also comes under fire. His masseur is being investigated in the theft of $4 million from Bulong, the state logistics agency. In addition, two checks given Wahid are unaccounted for--one for $2 million from the sultan of Brunei for relief work in strife-torn Aceh, the other a $125,000 contribution from a businessman to underwrite a recent Papua People’s Congress in the separatist province of Irian Jaya.


“Certainly no one is accusing the president of misappropriating the money,” the Jakarta Post editorialized. Wahid, in fact, lives in a modest house with no carpets or drapes, owns an older car and doesn’t give two hoots about personal wealth.

As the Post went on to point out, Wahid always has filtered funds through his private bank account to avoid red tape. But to continue the practice as president at a time when corruption is a pressing issue in Indonesia raises public concerns of wrongdoing in high places.

Wahid’s judgment also was questioned when he fired two respected Cabinet ministers, replacing them with close allies, and appointed his younger brother to the bank-restructuring agency.

The moves added to the air of uncertainty in Indonesia, coming as the rupiah, the local currency, was in the process of losing 20% of its value against the U.S. dollar, and Economics Minister Kwik Kian Gie told reporters that he didn’t see much reason for foreign investors to return to Indonesia.


“There is a perception the country is adrift, and clearly some of the things Gus Dur has done and said are irrational and ridiculous. Frankly, I think he is incapacitated,” said political analyst Wimar Witoelar, referring by nickname to Wahid, who is legally blind and in frail health. “The pressure of the presidency has gotten to him. I know a lot of people, including his children, are dismayed.”

However harsh the criticism, Wahid, 59, Indonesia’s first democratically elected president after half a century of authoritarian rule, has set an agenda and is fulfilling many of his promises.

Many developments are reassuring: the political power of the military has been dramatically reduced; the country is awash in investigations of human rights abuses, some of them going back nearly a decade; Suharto may well stand trial on corruption charges; and Wahid has been conciliatory toward the restive provinces.

Wahid wasn’t elected for his economic expertise, political analysts point out. Or for his management skills or predictability. He practices guerrilla politics. He is supremely confident, utterly charming and unpretentious, accustomed to outfoxing his foes.


Those attributes helped him sail through his first months in office but, Western diplomats say, aren’t enough to sustain his presidency or resuscitate Indonesia.