Indonesia Fires Wahid, Seats Rival


President Abdurrahman Wahid, whose 21-month rule over the world's fourth-most-populous country was marked by mounting chaos and bloody regional conflicts, was removed from office Monday by Indonesia's top legislative body.

By a vote of 591 to 0, the People's Consultative Assembly dismissed the erratic, nearly blind president despite his issuance of a decree in the middle of the night prohibiting the assembly from meeting.

Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose father, Sukarno, was Indonesia's first president, was quickly sworn in, becoming the first female president of the predominantly Muslim country.

Despite Wahid's repeated warnings of mass violence if he were ousted, the streets were calm. Wahid refused to acquiesce, however, and said through a spokesman that he would not give up the presidential palace to Megawati--the friend and rival he outmaneuvered in 1999 to win the presidency.

Wahid, an Islamic cleric revered as a holy man by many of his supporters, contends that the assembly did not have the authority to remove him from office. He argues that he is entitled to serve until his term ends in 2004.

Assembly Speaker Amien Rais, who helped bring Wahid to power and then led the campaign to remove him, encouraged Indonesians to be forgiving of the former president.

It was unclear, however, how long officials would be willing to let him claim that he is the country's legitimate leader.

Wahid biographer Greg Barton told Australia's ABC television that the ousted president was slowly coming to grips with his defeat, and that the mood in the palace was somber.

"It's a sad acceptance of what now appears to be inevitable," Barton said. "I think for the president most of all, it's come as a shock, and he's having trouble dealing with it."

Congratulations to Megawati poured in from leaders around the world.

"The people of Indonesia, by addressing their leadership crisis, and with their constitution and law, have shown commitment to the rule of law and democracy," President Bush said in Rome. "We hope all parties will work together to maintain peace, support the constitution and promote national reconciliation."

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security advisor, said the administration was urging the new government "to find peaceful ways to resolve the separatist tension within Indonesia," to respect human rights in the process, "and to really undertake economic reform in a very aggressive way so that Indonesia can return to economic growth and prosperity for its people."

About 300 Wahid supporters gathered outside the palace and peacefully protested his ouster.

Financial markets, however, welcomed the change in leadership. Indonesia's struggling currency, the rupiah, jumped 10% in value, and stocks reached a 10-month high.

For Megawati, the challenge will be to restore order and unity to the country without returning to the brutality of the Suharto military dictatorship.

Megawati, known as a woman of few words, delivered a short inaugural address to the assembly after she was sworn in. She acknowledged the huge challenges facing her but gave little hint of the programs she will pursue.

"Let us end all the fights and bickering among us that have deepened the sorrow and suffering of the people," she said. "Let us build our country together. Let us build our great Indonesia."

Megawati is the country's fifth president since it gained independence in 1949. Yet, reflecting the turbulence of recent times, she is also the fourth president in a little more than three years.

Indonesia's economy collapsed with the Asian crisis of 1997 and has never fully recovered. In May 1998, mass protests forced military dictator Suharto to step down after 32 years in power. His vice president, B. J. Habibie, took over until elections were held in 1999.

Megawati, whose party won the most seats in the parliamentary elections, expected that the People's Consultative Assembly would anoint her as president. But Wahid, whose party received only 10% of the vote, put together a coalition of supporters, many of whom did not want to see a woman take charge of the world's largest Islamic nation.

The West hoped that Wahid, an enlightened religious leader, would bring democracy to Indonesia and make progress in solving the nation's critical economic and social problems. But as president, he turned out to be more interested in traveling around the world with his entourage.

Separatist, religious and ethnic wars flared up across the archipelago, claiming thousands of lives and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. With rampant crime, a legal system that barely functions and millions out of work, anarchy and lawlessness became Wahid's legacy.

"I am extremely aware of the task which I will carry," Megawati said in her inaugural address. "The challenges which I will face are not light. I understand it will need immediate efforts to escape from this anguish which in the past several years has engulfed every corner of our national life."

Megawati is a nationalist like her father, and some fear that the military will regain influence. Faced with a choice Monday, the nation's top generals backed Megawati rather than following Wahid's orders to disband the assembly.

Wahid issued his decree out of desperation shortly after 1 a.m. Monday in the hope of preventing his ouster. If anything, it accelerated his removal by delegates determined not to let him escape.

The assembly convened for an hour early Monday in defiance of the presidential edict and quickly began debating the proposal to remove him.

To comply with Indonesia's complex constitution, the members constructed a four-part measure that rejected the emergency decree, concluded that Wahid had not fulfilled his constitutional duty, repealed the 1999 law that made him president and affirmed Megawati as the nation's new leader.

By 5 p.m., Wahid was finished.

His supporters in the 700-member assembly abstained rather than legitimize the process by voting. No decision was made on a candidate to replace Megawati as vice president.

One of Megawati's first acts as president was to disband Wahid's Cabinet so that the ministers could not make any last-minute decisions before she names her own people.

Wahid ostensibly faced removal from office for his alleged role in two corruption scandals, but he was never called to confront the charges against him in court or at an impeachment hearing. He maintains that he did nothing illegal.

Nevertheless, his removal by peaceful means was a significant step in the effort to build democracy. U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbard praised the process as "a triumph" for the country's democratic institutions.


Sari Sudarsono of The Times' Jakarta Bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World