Amien may support Habibie …


Maverick leader has secret talks with President ‘to keep his options open’ after his party’s poor showing in the general election, say sources.

MAVERICK politician Amien Rais met President B.J. Habibie late on Thursday night in a move which Habibie loyalists said was aimed at backing the incumbent for another term in office.

While political horse trading was going on between the two, the secular wing of his National Mandate Party (PAN), led by secretary-general Faisal Basri, voted unanimously to reject Dr Habibie, raising the spectre of an split in the opposition party.

Sources told The Straits Times yesterday that the US-trained academic had initiated the secret talks with Dr Habibie and presidential adviser Jimly Ashidique “to keep his options open” after PAN’s poor showing in the general election.

Official and unofficial polls show the party trailing far behind the Indonesian Democratic Party-Perjuangan (Struggle), Golkar, Nation Awakening Party (PKB) and the United Development Party with about 6 per cent of the votes despite pre-election prediction by political pundits that it would blaze a trail.

“He is rather disappointed with PAN’s unexpected poor performance so far,” said Mr Barahasibuan, a party central executive board member. “He wants to keep lines of communication open to all sides.”

Top presidential aide Dewi Fortuna Anwar confirmed that talks took place between the two leaders, both of whom belong to the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals, but stopped short of commenting on whether Dr Amien had thrown his political weight behind Dr Habibie.

“I cannot confirm or deny what transpired at the meeting,” she said.

But a Habibie loyalist at the President’s residence said that Dr Amien had “pledged to support Habibie” as Indonesia’s next leader.

“He realises that his political future and Indonesia’s future is with Pak Habibie and not Megawati,” he told The Straits Times.

“Megawati does not have Islamic credentials to be our President and Amien knows that.”

Analysts said that Dr Amien’s motivation to meet the German-trained engineer was partly a desire to “widen the safety net”.

He could not rely solely on the PDI-P and PKB to maintain his political lifeline.

While having formed a tacit alliance with Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri and Mr Abdurrahman Wahid, they can do away with him if they are strong enough to form a coalition themselves.

Moreover, differences over policy matters such as the military’s political role and PAN’s move to create a federal state would divide them.

A more important reason for Dr Amien’s manoeuvring could be pressure from the Islamic faction of PAN trying to revert to its more non-secular identity and Muhammadiyah, buoyed of course by imminent electoral victory in the Muslim heartland of West Sumatra.

Said a senior Western government analyst: “He might be responding to pressures from within the party who don’t want anything to do with a female president. It also dovetails with Habibie and Golkar’s use of the Islamic card to bolster their position. So you get a meeting of minds here. Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

PAN sources said there were simmering tensions between secular and non-secular forces in the party and that with the success in West Sumatra, the power balance was shifting to the Muslim faction.

A member of the executive board warned that the party would break up if Dr Amien “jumped ship to Habibie and Islam”. “The party has already been very divided for some time and that division is widening as we slump further in the polls,” he said. “Pak Amien will only kill the party if he supports Habibie. It will also raise suspicions of his reform credentials.” Observers said that a PAN fragmentation over backing of the incumbent for the presidency signalled a broader problem.

Said the Western government analyst: “Dr Habibie is the single-most polarising factor in Indonesian politics today. His presence denies the possibility of a grand coalition between all the leading parties because he is riding on the coattails of Islam. It will sow the seeds of popular dissatisfaction.”

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