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Power games in Indonesia

Print edition : Jun 09, 2001



In a desperate frame of mind, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid may resort to extraordinary measures to stay in power.

INDONESIA is on the brink. Political turmoil mounted as the House of Representatives (DPR) voted to convene a special session of the supreme legislature, the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), on August 1 to impeach President Abdurrahman Wahid. Some political pundits believe that a compromise between Wahid and Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri is still possible.

With less than two months to face the MPR session, Wahid made a couple of significant moves. He dismissed Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on June 1- a day after the 19-nation Group of -15 summit ended in Jakarta - and Attorney-General Marzuki Darusman. But he was unsuccessful in his attempt to replace the national police chief, Suroyo Bimantoro; causing much embarrassment to the President, Bimantoro refused to leave, saying that the appointment of his successor had to be approved by Parliament. He is reported to have the support of senior police officers. Wahid appointed Agum Gumelar, a retired General said to be close to Megawati as Security Minister, a key job if the President is to get the military to support him.

Large-scale political violence did not take place in Jakarta in the run-up to the May 30 DPR session although Wahid's supporters staged violent protests in East Java. The potential for violence has, however, not been exhausted.

From time to time, the President has threatened to impose a state of civil emergency in the country, which will allow him to avoid the impeachment process by dissolving Parliament and then calling for fresh elections. Bambang Yudhoyono had publicly differed with the President's plans to impose emergency. Now that Bambang has been removed, it remains to be seen whether Wahid will go ahead with the proclamation of emergency.

If he does, the move will be accompanied by a crackdown on Wahid's political opponents and other detractors.

Wahid clearly has few options left, and imposing a state of emergency is one way he could theoretically remain in power. But such a move will negate his credentials of being Indonesia's first democratically elected President, ending 38 years of brutal military rule in October 1999.

Jakarta-based analysts say that Wahid is in an increasingly desperate frame of mind. "He might well go ahead with these desperate schemes and create further trouble in the country. Our President has shown no interest in taking the democratic way out and resigning," one analyst told Frontline.

A Western diplomat said that a power-sharing arrangement between the President and the Vice-President was an unlikely prospect. (After the DPR session Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab hinted at the possibility of a political compromise as a viable solution.) "Megawati wants to enjoy full powers as President. She doesn't want to see the office of the President weakened. So, the sharing of power between the President and the Vice-President doesn't look like an attractive option to her," the diplomat said.

There are, of course, other issues involved here. Megawati, daughter of the country's first President, Sukarno, is an untested political commodity and has so far shown no inclination to take on the President publicly. The few recent statements she has made are all mild or indirect, showing once again her disinclination to take on the President, who is a personal friend as well.

Megawati, for her part, wants to go by the country's 1945 Constitution - even on the question of impeaching the President. However, if Wahid pre-empts the process by going ahead with his emergency plans, the Vice-President may well be caught on the wrong foot.

An editorial in The Jakarta Post said: "...two months is a long, and potentially a very disruptive time for Indonesia. The people, and the international community, will have to endure that long period of even greater uncertainty than today, until the national leadership crisis is resolved through this arduous and complex constitutional mechanism (in the MPR). All other national agenda, including the process of economic recovery, will have to wait until this issue is settled."

It suggested: "Even if he (President Wahid) survives the attempt to oust him - for one must never underestimate his resourcefulness - it is mind-boggling how President Abdurrahman hopes to govern with such low support nationwide. It is high time for his closest aides, particularly those who have influence over him, to make him see the political reality and that in defending his presidency, he is essentially fighting for a lost cause...."

It will be nothing short of a national tragedy if the country were to veer once again towards authoritarian rule. Wahid, however, has so far not been able to rope in the support of top Generals, some of whom have publicly opposed his plans to impose a state of emergency. In fact, the Generals have spoken out against Wahid's plans. While they would want to be seen playing a neutral role, analysts believe that the Indonesian military is in no position to play a direct role in the country's power politics. "They are too discredited to play any kind of direct role," one analyst said. If the country drifts towards political chaos, the military may well have to choose between obeying its current political master and maintaining law and order.

Joining the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Endiartono Sutarto, in making public his opposition to a state of emergency was Lt. Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu, chief of the Strategic Reserve Command (Kostrad), who has called on soldiers to remain "loyal to the people". "A soldier's politics is the nation's politics. Let there not be a single Kostrad soldier who betrays this or becomes a traitor to the Republic and people of Indonesia," he said.

Referring to the MPs as the "people's representatives", he said, "We are the people's soldiers. We'll be standing at the people's side if they find themselves in conflict with the government."

He continued: "We will maintain loyalty to the President because he was legitimately elected, but if the people make a different demand, we will adjust ourselves accordingly."

The military, for its part, has tried to distance itself from the President and his proposed schemes and won some support from civil society for its position. Civil society groups have, however, warned it to stay out of the political game.

WRITING in the International Herald Tribune, Harold Crouch, director of the International Crisis Group's Indonesia Project, argued that the move to remove Wahid was more political than legal and constitutional.

He added: "The President himself is also under personal attack and accused of making irresponsible statements that only exacerbate tensions. His claim that 400,000 supporters would come to Jakarta in his defence and his assertion that six provinces would declare independence are just two recent examples. Even more damaging have been his threats to impose an emergency and dissolve Parliament and the Assembly if they pursue what he sees as their unconstitutional plan to dismiss him."

In an editorial titled ''Playing with Fire'', the Indonesian journal Tempo said political opponents were not playing by the rules of the game. It warned of the possibility of "serious violence". "The problem is that if nobody follows the rules and those whose job it is to enforce the regulations are often uncertain of their job, any competition - be it soccer or politics - will rapidly degenerate into disorder accompanied by serious violence," it said.

It added: "And that is why the behaviour of a President and politician such as Abdurrahman Wahid who is so fond of making threats manifests itself as a frightening creature in society..."

The concerns are there for all to see. What happens in the next few days and weeks in Indonesia could well dictate the events in the country for the next few years.

The country's well-wishers would do well to keep their fingers crossed. Desperation can lead well-meaning men to make bizarre moves. One can only hope and pray that there will be a speedy and democratic end to Indonesia's current round of political troubles.



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