Lines of power still shifting in Jakarta

INDONESIA’S President B.J. Habibie has fired the opening salvo in what is likely to be a drawn-out battle over who ends up ruling the country in the next five years.

Last week, he used a little-known power to remove 41 members of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), the country’s top policy-making body, and replaced them with several names perceived to be close to him.

A few of the new members are ministers in the new Cabinet, like Mr Farid Muluk, Mr Soleh Solahuddin, Mr Budiono and Mr Bambang Subianto. Two of the President’s assistants, Dewi Fortuna Anwar and Lieutenant-General Sintong Panjaitan, were also included.

Journalist Parni Hadi, a close presidential adviser on media affairs, was chosen as well.

The tie that really binds several of the 41 appointees is their links to the Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI), an organisation once headed by Dr Habibie. At least 15 are card-carrying members or ICMI sympathisers.

State Secretary Akbar Tanjung, an ally of Dr Habibie, maintained that the new members were not meant to “cleanse” the MPR of members who might be loyal to former president Suharto.

But those who faced the axe from the MPR held ministerial positions in the Suharto regime. They include former home affairs ministers R. Hartono and Yogie Memet, former attorney-general Singgih, former finance minister Fuad Bawazier and Trade and Industry Minister and Mr Suharto’s golfing buddy Mohamad “Bob” Hasan.

Mr Fachry Ali, a noted columnist for the weekly Gatra magazine and one of the 41 appointed to the MPR, said: “It is one of Habibie’s efforts to clear away Suharto remnants. He also wants to show people that he is really his own man and counter criticisms that he is a hardcore Suhartoist.”

To broaden representation in the MPR, Mr Ali pointed out, the President had included, among others, prominent ethnic Chinese businessman James Riady, former student activist Hariman Siregar and deputy chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights Marzuki Darusman.

At the outset, it would appear that the number he replaced is small considering there are 1,000 MPR members. But analysts believe it is significant because they represent a big block of the 100 people whom Dr Habibie has the power to appoint. Five hundred members are elected Parliamentary representatives and the remaining lot are from the political parties and armed forces (Abri).

Said Mr Marzuki Darusman: “That is a big move given the limits of his power. It is also the first real initiative to change the composition of the old MPR. The President has taken the lead and wants the rest to take the cue.”

The political significance of appointing these new members is much larger. The main aim, analysts believe, is to affect the MPR composition given the crucial role it will play before and during the special session this year.

Noted a Jakarta-based diplomat: “This is the start of a long battle for power. Habibie is putting his people out to build up a base to fight opposition to his rule. It will be one battle in multiple arenas.”

Indeed, the striking feature now compared to just six weeks ago when students ruled the streets of Jakarta and other cities, is that the contest is taking place on the back corridors of Golkar, Parliament and the MPR.

Analysts said that there will be at least two stages in the “conflict”:

* Round One will essentially be the fight to elect a chairman for the Golkar party this week. The battle is clearly between former coordinating minister for defence and security Edi Sudradjat, backed by former vice-president Try Sutrisno, who is said to be close to the Suharto family, and Habibie ally Akbar Tanjung.

* Round Two will be the special MPR session in November. If Dr Habibie fails to place his “anointed” candidate as Golkar head, he will have to face off Gen Sudradjat, who is not too predisposed to the President. The retired general is not likely to have an easy run given that Dr Habibie would have had lined up people against him to thwart any attempt at getting a two-third majority.

Mr Darusman said that while the special session would formerly debate new electoral and political laws, several members would also want to challenge the constitutionality of the new President.

“That is a political given. The special session loses its significance if we do not address that issue,” he said, adding that it was possible that the MPR members would take a vote on the matter if the economic crisis showed no signs of improvement.

Abri sources contend that Dr Habibie had so far made “token gestures” in appointing new members to the MPR.

Noted an Abri intelligence officer: “He has appointed some light- and middleweights that would stand up and question his track record so far.

“But where are the political heavyweights and government critics like Amien Rais, Megawati and Abdurrahman Wahid? Why were they excluded from the MPR?”

ICMI insiders, however, contend that Dr Habibie did make overtures for Mr Rais in particular to join the MPR. But the latter declined.

“It would have been politically astute for the President to rope him in,” said one source. “But he would have to take a big risk of them differing on many issues.”

Several of the newly-appointed MPR members maintained that they would question government policies and were not stooges of Dr Habibie.

Said Mr Parni Hardi, an ICMI member and head of the state-run Antara news agency: “I am not a puppet of Habibie and I will take him to task if I feel the economy is going nowhere. There is this new mood of democracy in the air. We are all free now to stand up for what we believe in.”

Said Mr Darusman: “The paradigm of Indonesian politics has changed over the last month. We will see more changes in the form and substance of politics in the months to come.”

One critical change is the gradual “de-Javanisation” of politics. Analysts said that his new Cabinet and selection of MPR members indicated a move away from the conventional practice of selecting only Javanese for key government positions.

The power centre is also not as clearly defined as it was during the Suharto-era, with various groups jockeying to secure positions in the new political format.

Alliance fault lines in these uncertain times are at best still vague and fluid.

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