Received from Joyo Indonesian News
International Herald Tribune
Saturday, February 24, 2001
Wahid Is Indonesia's Best Hope
Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune
JAKARTA - President Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia faces many crises, several of his own creation. But it would be wrong to assume that he is doomed and unwise to believe that his early removal, even if conducted constitutionally, would be beneficial.
Whatever Mr. Wahid's physical condition, personal failings, political ineptness and lack of administrative ability, the available alternatives are worse. They could quickly reverse the modest progress that Indonesia has made in devising, though barely implementing, reform.
Friendly governments would do better to consider how they can best avoid aggravating issues. The present situation where the International Monetary Fund appears to be the chief interlocutor between Indonesia and the outside world is troubling. Whatever its technical merits, the IMF's micro-agenda and unearned self-righteousness raises nationalist hackles here, aggravating the instability which is sapping energies and making policy implementation ever more difficult.
Expectations were always too high that with one election and the liberal Mr. Wahid at the helm Indonesia could create a clean, decentralized, democratic and plural system while also rebuilding a collapsed financial system. Democracy has changed the rules but not the players and created new monetary demands on a system imbued with corruption. Decentralization and changes in the voting system may eventually change the players but for now reform will remain a very slow process, whoever leads, and is partly at odds with the need for faster resolution of corporate debts.
Mr. Wahid started with a weak hand, owing his position to maneuvering within the Peoples' Consultative Assembly though his own party has few seats. His behavior has weakened him further - intellectual arrogance, autocratic ways, and a refusal to acknowledge that the power of the presidency has waned. Parliament may be fractious and immature, but cannot be ignored.
Mr. Wahid could form a more effective government if he were less determined to defend his own prerogatives and more willing to make compromises with Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose PDI-P is the largest party in Parliament. That might not improve the quality of the cabinet but would allow Mr. Wahid to spend more time governing and less on political maneuvers. It would also reduce the likelihood of issues being fought on the streets, where Mr. Wahid's Muslim group has muscle. A third Wahid cabinet with more PDI-P and technocrat membership is now a possibility but whether Mr. Wahid can change his autocratic ways is in doubt.
But do not expect too much from cabinet changes. Failures to prosecute Suharto era criminality or enforce bankruptcy orders is more due to the pervasiveness of corruption than to Mr. Wahid.
It is possible that Mr. Wahid can be removed, but the constitutional process is murky and could raise the
political temperature on the streets to boiling point. Nor is there any reason to believe that Mrs. Megawati would be an improvement. Mr. Wahid's faults are in implementation, not policy. He remains the most inclusive figure, a Muslim leader with a mass following who is trusted by Chinese and Christians. Given Indonesia's fragile social fabric, this alone is good reason for him to stay. He has at least tried to find non-military solutions to the Aceh and Irian insurgencies, and is committed to decentralization. He has an international outlook and favors an open economy.
Mrs. Megawati owes her position to her name as former president Sukarno's daughter, not her ideas, organizational ability or anti-corruption zeal. She would take a more nationalist stance on the economy and is more popular in the army because she favors a tough line on Aceh and is viewed as more easily influenced than Mr. Wahid. But she would face as many problems with Parliament as Mr. Wahid and is a more
divisive figure who might spark the rise of a more radical Islam.
Further ahead new options may open up - including the return of the now divided and discredited military. But for now the status quo, despite its many frustrations, is the best option. It is also likely to prevail because the political elite has not changed significantly. The Jakarta elite will be reluctant to push their personal interests to the point of causing chaos. Society is fraying at the edges but still expects its leaders to find compromises.
Allies should note that Indonesia's problems are in the first place political and should receive attention at the
highest political level. They need to quietly persuade Mr. Wahid to be more flexible while avoiding lectures on
micro-economic issues. Public bullying of the embattled government of this huge and proud nation is no way to help Indonesia remain a plural, united and open society. Above all, be more patient.