That call on Habibie : What is Amien up to?


Different theories are being spun about the late-night meeting between the leader of the opposition National Mandate Party and the President.


DR AMIEN Rais is a political chameleon.

Faced with electoral disaster, the leader of the opposition National Mandate Party (PAN) seems to have dumped his anti-Golkar position with unseemly haste, perhaps in exchange for a Cabinet position.

Without the knowledge of even the PAN central executive board, which ironically was deliberating whether to veto a Habibie presidency on Thursday, Dr Amien held secret talks the same night with President B. J. Habibie.

Different theories are being spun about this meeting.

One says that he wanted to persuade the incumbent to agree to lengser keprabon, a Javanese expression for a ruler to step aside.

Unlikely, say analysts, who argue that Dr Amien would not be in a position to challenge the President, given PAN’s less-than-commanding position in the polls.

Indeed, it was trailing far behind the Indonesian Democratic Party-Perjuangan (Struggle), Golkar and the Nation Awakening Party (PKB), with only 6 per cent of the votes.

More likely, it was a rearguard action for his political survival, a conspicuous trait in his record.

Dr Amien has recreated himself several times in the past few years, most starkly when he emerged as a self- proclaimed leader of reformasi after being identified with the regime as a member of the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) which Dr Habibie founded.

PAN sources say that his meeting with the Suharto protege was aimed at “keeping his options open”.

“His position is weak,” said a central executive board member, who declined to be named. He added that Dr Amien wanted to “have a line” not just to Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri and Mr Abdurrahman Wahid, but also to Dr Habibie.

Golkar leaders were more forthcoming about the intentions of the US-trained academic. Chairman Akbar Tandjung, who was informed about the meeting only a day later, told The Straits Times that Dr Amien had “pledged support for Habibie to get a place in Cabinet”.

To the media, Dr Amien sang the rhetoric tune in what some believe was a “signal to all potential coalition partners that he can swing either way if he got a poor deal”.

PAN can play this game.

Despite its poor showing, it is still the only party that can tip the balance in a straight fight between PDI-P and Golkar and its allies.

On Saturday, news reports quoted him as saying that to “make a coalition with Golkar is the last choice I make in this world”.

A day later, he said PAN was prepared to join forces with PDI-P and PKB on several conditions. These included amending the 1945 Constitution, abolishing the military’s role in politics, and creating a federal state – all of which are diametrically opposed to what the other two parties want.

“It effectively kills off any chances of a coalition if we are forced to accept their conditions,” said Mr Rosi Munir, vice-chairman of the Nadhlatul Ulama, which backs the PKB.

Dr Amien appears to be throwing a spanner in the works to give him enough justification to swing towards Golkar, a move which for Golkar might make the difference between retaining the presidency and going into opposition.

PAN’s modernist base, through its links with the Muhammadiyah group, makes it a “natural fit” for a Golkar-led coalition. Noted a Western diplomat: “There is a confluence of interests and Dr Amien is unlikely to insist on Golkar living by certain rules. There will be some teething problems, but PAN will go to bed with Golkar and the military.”

Of course, Dr Amien will have to confront internal dissension from the secular faction of PAN led by secretary-general Faisal Basri, who sources said was “stunned” when he heard of his chairman’s meeting with Dr Habibie.

Elements from this group have threatened to walk out if their leader “jumps ship”.

Will PAN survive? Dr Amien might have calculated that it is unlikely to damage the party significantly given that most of the parliamentary seats PAN has won so far are being held by the Muslim wing under deputy leader A. M. Fatwa.

What could suffer irreparable damage is Dr Amien’s credibility. But that matters only to opinion leaders in Jakarta and the big cities.

The small band of core PAN supporters in the provinces will probably care little whether they are in coalition with Golkar or not.

The important consideration is whether the party will get Cabinet positions that will benefit them in the “traditional way”. In other words, will its leaders be able to divert government largesse and favouritism to PAN and its constituent support organisations like Muhammadiyah, the second-largest Muslim body in the country with 28 million members?

For the average Muhammadiyah “pesantran” or religious boarding school, additional flow of government money will matter far more than any vague commitments to reformasi.

Certainly, some PAN intellectuals will be disappointed. But intellectuals and idealists have never figured strongly in Indonesian politics, which has always been about power and money, not principles and programmes.

According to Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung, Dr Amien had “pledged support for Habibie to get a place in Cabinet”.

Another theory making the rounds is that the PAN leader wanted to persuade the incumbent to agree to lengser keprabon, a Javanese expression for a ruler to step aside.

PAN sources say that his meeting with the Suharto protege was aimed at “keeping his options open”.

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