A daughter rises in the east

Print edition : August 04, 2001

The new President of Indonesia, Megawati Sukarnoputri, has her task cut out.

MEGAWATI Sukarnoputri may well find that becoming the President was the easy part. Now comes the difficult part - the job of running a distinctly difficult Indonesia whose problems are both varied and intractable.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri with the Chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly Amien Rais, left, and Vice-President Hamzah Haz after Haz's swearing in ceremony in Jakarta.-DITA ALANGKARA/AP

On July 23, Indonesia's Upper House of Parliament, the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), voted to revoke the mandate of President Abdurrahman Wahid and then proceeded to elect Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri in his place.

Just the night before, Wahid, in a desperate bid to cling to power, declared a "state of Emergency" and froze Parliament in order to prevent it from holding a special session to impeach him. But, as Wahid found out quickly enough, this was a decree which could not be implemented. The leadership of the security forces had pledged not to follow any illegal orders; so without their support the Emergency decree was not worth the paper it was written on. The Supreme Court held the decree "illegal" the next day.

In view of the former President's repeated threats to impose an Emergency, the MPR, with the consent of all political parties barring Wahid's, advanced the special session of the Upper House from August 1 to July 23. Wahid repeatedly warned that the country would fall apart in case he was impeached, and that his followers in the Nadhlatul Ulama would have their own ideas about what to do in such a situation. Mercifully, nothing of the sort happened. The final transition in Indonesia was peaceful and proper - the MPR took pains to "show" that it followed the procedures while impeaching the President.

As Megawati gets down to the job of Cabinet formation, some of the problems that Wahid faced owing to the fact that he did not have a clear majority in Parliament, are likely to haunt the daughter of the country's first President, Sukarno, as well. Already, the ambitious Speaker of the MPR, Amien Rais, has called for "proportional representation" in the Cabinet, based on the strength of each party in Parliament. While such an approach may buy political peace, it might not make for good and effective governance. Amien Rais, whose party did not put up a good show in the 1990 elections, is by all accounts a smart politician. While he has chosen to back Megawati, he waits in the shadows for an opportunity to make a move for the top job.

The delay in forming a government is a clear indication that there are no easy choices before Megawati. In the 500-member lower House of Representatives (DPR), Megawati's Indonesian Demo-cratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) has 185 seats. While her faction is the biggest, she has to take her allies around.

Her situation is better than that of Wahid, whose National Awakening Party had just 57 seats, but the new President could face problems from the same allies who once supported Wahid and are now backing her.

The election of Hamzah Haz of the United Development Party (PPP) as Vice-President in three rounds of polling shows that the polarisation in Indonesian politics is far from complete. That Megawati's party backed Hamzah, who in 1999 opposed her becoming President on the grounds that Islam did not allow a woman to become head of state, shows the compulsions the new President faces. The other possible choice was Akbar Tandjung, leader of the Golkar Party and Speaker of the House of Representatives, who finally lost out in the Vice-Presidential race.

The students, who led the uprising against Suharto in 1998, were back outside the gates of Parliament, appalled that a man like Akbar, a symbol of Suharto's 32-year-long autocratic rule, was being even considered for the job of Vice-President. There is little doubt that while Golkar enjoys influence, the vast mass of Indonesian people do not think that the party should be in government any more.

One of Wahid's (and Indonesia's) failures has been the inability to hold accountable the chief representatives of the Suharto era, including the former President himself. The collusion of state forces in all this is best illustrated by the failure to arrest Tommy Suharto, the younger son of Suharto. The challenge for Megawati will be to break the nexus built up in the Suharto era if she is serious about taking forward the democratisation process. If she falls for the "strong state" line, then the country's problems could well mount.

Indonesia is delicately poised as a nation-state, with serious separatist problems in Aceh and Irian Jaya, while communal violence persists in Maluku and Kalimantan. The mysterious Christmas-eve blasts in churches across the country last year as well as the attack on the Jakarta Stock Exchange have yet to be explained. Answers to these and other such basic questions are needed if Indonesia is to understand the forces that are working to undermine democracy. While there has been much speculation about their identity, it is clear that they are powerful and can make moves against those they regard as threats.

The new President is known to favour the security forces. Their deployment in different conflict situations, which was minimised under Wahid, is likely to increase. The security forces, too, have backed Megawati and they will expect favours in return. What is likely to happen is that the military will have a greater say in governance and be more visible. In fact, the PDI-P firmly believes that there can be no immediate return to barracks for the military, a position that will make the security forces happy.

As Indonesia's Parliament met in Jakarta, the 34th meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers got under way in Hanoi. For the first time since ASEAN was formed, there was no Indonesian Foreign Minister present, a fact that was noted by the bureaucratic head of Indonesia's delegation. As some Foreign Ministers admitted, they were following developments in their largest-member state on an hour-to-hour basis during their deliberations in Hanoi.

Finally, the joint communique issued by the ASEAN Ministers on July 24 said: "We welcomed the political transition and election of Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia. We expressed our hope that this orderly and peaceful transition would lead to political stability and speedy economic recovery in Indonesia."

The very next day, the 23-nation ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) made a similar point: "The Ministers welcomed the election of President Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, which had been conducted in a democratic, peaceful and constitutional manner.

The Ministers expressed the hope that this orderly and peaceful transition would lead to political stability and accelerated economic recovery in Indonesia. The Ministers believed that the stability and prosperity of Indonesia would contribute positively to the peace, stability and prosperity of the region."

It was good for both the ASEAN-ARF sessions that the crisis in Indonesia was resolved without violence and under the country's Constitution. There is little doubt that ASEAN member-states, especially Indonesia's immediate neighbours, breathed a sigh of relief at the bloodless transition. With 220 million people, Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country, with a multi-ethnic and multi-religious polity. Just as Indonesians want their country to hold together, the rest of the world, too, has an interest in its stability.

Megawati Sukarnoputri has the onerous task of fixing the economy, providing political stability and good governance to a nation from where the news has not been "good" for the past few years. Her friend and former President, Abdurrahman Wahid, has taken wing to the United States for medical treatment after remaining holed up in the Presidential palace. The popular daughter of Indonesia's first President can now get down to business.

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