4 - 10 November 1999
Issue No. 454
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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A man for all peopleBy Faiza Rady
On 20 October, in a tantalising move, betraying much furtive wheeling and dealing behind the scenes, the Indonesian People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) chose Abdurrahman Wahid as the country's first democratically-elected president in more than three decades.
With five abstentions among the 691 votes cast in the 700-member parliament, Wahid captured 373 votes against 313 in favour of Megawati Sukarnoputri, the initial front-runner and daughter of Sukarno, the founding father of modern Indonesia.
In the wake of Wahid's unexpected ascent to the presidency -- he trailed a distant fourth in June's legislative elections -- the Western media's speculations about the man ran amock, covering the full gamut of his health, wealth and adroit pursuit of political alliances.
In a none-too-subtle reference to Wahid's choice of Megawati Sukarnoputri as vice president, Time gleefully greeted Wahid and his running mate as "Indonesia's odd couple". Describing Megawati as an inept "career housewife" who defines "silence as a political act", and Wahid as surprisingly alert for the stumbling blind victim of two strokes, the magazine speculated at length on the potential political consequences should the new president-elect unfortunately die in office.
Not to be outdone by the competition's brand of journalistic trivia, the traditionally sober and solemn New York Times in turn profiled Wahid -- nicknamed Gus Dur -- as mentally impaired, fumbling and handicapped, while somehow also managing to project the persona of a shrewd politician and a scheming jokester.
Quoting the latest Jakarta in-joke, The New York Times summed up the new president's alleged craftiness. "His shifting pronouncements, alliances and public stands have led Indonesians to say that there are three things you can never be certain about: life, death and Gus Dur."
However, beyond the Western media's provocative caricature of the man, Wahid has already proven himself a crafty and highly-skilled politician.
News of his election to the top job came as a political bombshell, causing stupor and consternation throughout the country. Until the eleventh hour preceding the MPR's vote, Megawati had in effect been considered the natural candidate for the presidency, since her Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI) had won the largest share of the popular vote in the June parliamentary elections.
"After the elections in June, many Indonesians thought they had elected Mrs Megawati. But that voting produced just 462 of the 700 members of the electoral assembly. The rest were appointed, opening the way to the back-room deals that have taken the final decision out of the hands of the Indonesian people," explained The New York Times.
Unlike Wahid, Megawati failed to strike deals with Indonesia's ruling party Golkar, and/or the country's powerful military establishment. Despite considerable downsizing after Suharto's downfall last May, the armed forces still control 38 designated seats in the MPR's 500-seat upper house, as well as 10 per cent of the 200 lower-house seats. They thus still have a powerful say in political negotiations and alliances.
Seemingly too principled to negotiate political compromises, Megawati evidently lost out to the more pliant and politically flexible Wahid. A master diplomat and consummate back-room schemer, Wahid also managed to finesse the backing of a number of prominent Golkar delegates.
Following the announcement of Wahid's victory in parliament, thousands of Megawati supporters rushed out into the streets of the capital to protest at the MPR's "betrayal" of their candidate.
"The political elites are the ones who decide the outcome, and not [the people in] the election," fumed Emmy Hafild, a political activist.
Confronting a battalion of 40,000 anti-riot police, specially deployed to quell potential unrest, the protesters railed against the establishment's all-too-familiar dismissal of the popular will, despite the government's litany of pledges promising political liberalisation, democratisation and good things to come.
While more than 10,000 demonstrators vented their fury on the streets, denouncing the politicians' vote by pelting the police with stones and the occasional Molotov cocktail, Wahid saluted the parliament by solemnly lauding the virtues of modern "democracy".
"I am here to celebrate our victory and our democracy," said the president elect, to a chorus of cheers and applause.
Ever the wheeler dealer, Wahid managed to foil the demonstrators' discontent by offering Megawati the vice-presidency.
This seemingly accomplished politician also boasts an impressive C.V. The founding leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation, Nahdalatul Ulama, which claims a membership of 30 million, Wahid commands deep allegiance among the country's large Islamic community. Ninety per cent of Indonesia's 210 million inhabitants are Muslim, making it the world's largest Islamic nation.
Though a fervent Muslim and a religious scholar who studied theology in Egypt and Iraq, Wahid is also perceived as a committed secularist.
He is on record as having rejected the Shari'a as the reference for the nation's legal code, and has vehemently condemned the widespread abuse and discrimination against the often vilified Chinese ethnic minority. In this respect, the new president's credentials are indeed impeccable.
Enraged by critics from the religious right, who blast his lack of commitment to a more militant brand of political Islam, Wahid replies in kind. "Those who say that I am not Islamic enough should reread their Qur'an. Islam is about inclusion, tolerance, community."
But despite his lofty secularist stand and commendable promotion of human rights, Wahid's political compromises would so far seem to have got the better of his fair play instincts. Following the appointment of the country's new cabinet last Wednesday, it became evident that many of the old guard had been retained, and only the most visibly tainted among the Golkar and the military elite dismissed.
Whereas The New York Times highly commended Wahid for his appointment of Jowono Sudarsono, the former minister of education, as defence minister, a closer inspection of the man reveals his close links to the army establishment. Described by the Times as a "respected scholar and manager", Jowono is in fact the former deputy head of an elite military institute.
The cabinet-level appointment of General Wiranto, the former chief of the armed forces who was responsible for the Indonesian army's recent carnage in East Timor and other atrocities, as minister for political and security affairs confirms the same rule -- though according to the Times, this is an insignificant and "vaguely defined role", which allegedly "removes him from direct political and military control."
Despite the paper's assurance that the general has been effectively neutralised, Wiranto is still very much alive and kicking in his new job. Touring the region this week, the brand new minister could have been mistaken for the Indonesian foreign secretary, as he was wined and dined by Singapore's prime minister, Goh Chok Tong. Meanwhile, the Defence Ministry is safe in the capable hands of Wiranto's former second-in-command, Admiral Widodo Adisutjipto.
To judge from Wahid's game of musical chairs to date, nothing much has changed in Indonesia.