Baligate, Timor leave Habibie worse for wear

PRESIDENT B. J. Habibie might appear to have won a battle against his political adversaries but the outcome is still uncertain.

As he announced Jakarta’s decision to open East Timor to foreign troops under the glare of international attention last week, Indonesian defence forces (TNI) chief General Wiranto, in a black suit and traditional peci head garb, stood in the background, unflinching but visibly disappointed.

He was the last in the Cabinet to approve the plan as world pressure mounted for Indonesia to end the atrocities in East Timor.

It was the ultimate loss of face for the military, already wounded by the referendum loss in East Timor. The TNI viewed it with contempt, as doubts over Dr Habibie’s leadership grew even more virulent among the top brass.

The President may have erred in cutting the military embryo from his support base, which, among other factors, would make it a struggle of Sisyphean proportions for him to capture the throne.

After days of rumours and mudslinging between Habibie loyalists and the military, the balance of power seemed to tilt towards Dr Habibie and his Muslim supporters.

But in Indonesia, nothing is what it seems. The country is operating increasingly from two political, administrative centres – civilian and military.

The TNI is far from finished in politics. Hours before Dr Habibie’s announcement, he met Cabinet ministers and senior TNI officers, including General Wiranto, to make clear his reasons.

Palace insiders disclosed that he urged Gen Wiranto to “try and understand” the international pressures on Indonesia. The latter conceded eventually, but with two demands: that the TNI not be “embarrassed” by having to pull out its 14,000 troops and that the peacekeeping force include Asian countries.

The President then got on the phone to convince UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to accept the requests. Mr Annan rejected them and warned of repercussions if Indonesia failed to cooperate.

Dr Habibie gave in and ordered Foreign Minister Ali Alatas to head for New York “to tie up loose ends” with the UN, much to Gen Wiranto’s chagrin. The general ordered his ally Lieutenant-General Bambang Yudhoyono and other generals to accompany Dr Alatas to oversee negotiations with the UN.

Military sources said that decision was taken without Dr Habibie’s approval, and that its main aim was to ensure TNI interests were protected.

A day later, Gen Wiranto held private talks with several retired generals responsible for many of the shenanigans in Indonesian politics today.

A source present said Gen Wiranto was under “tremendous pressure” from these ultra-nationalist figures to “crack a few heads”.

The source said: “They urged him to be brave and fight Habibie head on.

“They wanted him to act against Habibie because he had totally discredited the military over East Timor.” But Gen Wiranto toed a cautious line.

Aware that an ultimatum he gave the President a week earlier had been exploited by Habibie loyalists to discredit him internationally, Gen Wiranto suggested a more subtle but constitutional route.

The plan, say sources, was for Dr Habibie to remain in power to make his accountability speech at the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR).

SHIFTING ALLIANCES

IT WAS difficult to forge an internal consensus within the TNI to support the incumbent for the presidency, given the psychological impact of East Timor on senior officers, many of whom had earned their spurs there.

With the military’s ideological bearing moving from the centre to the right, the choice now was to back Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party-Perjuangan (PDI-Struggle).

This volte face was manifested in a recent meeting of local army commanders in Jakarta. They were ordered to give “all the necessary support” for Ms Megawati’s presidency.

Gen Wiranto is expected to meet her to pledge military backing in return for the TNI securing the hotly-contested vice-presidential seat, either through PDI-Struggle or Golkar.

In addition, military sources said that there was also likely to be a meeting with leaders from PDI-Struggle, Golkar, the Nation Awakening Party, and the National Mandate Party to strike a power-sharing deal and examine ways to speed up the presidential election.

Gen Wiranto and the other generals now realise that gunning for the top post in a situation of relative stability could be counter-productive. Some generals believe that the Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos partnership in the Philippines a decade ago could be a model for Indonesia today.

Insiders said the trade-off would entail PDI-Struggle controlling the economic and trade portfolios in government. The military has its sights on domestic politics, security and foreign policy.

Gen Wiranto would also seek assurances that a Megawati government would protect TNI’s dual-function doctrine and safeguard Mr Suharto and his family.

Dr Habibie is confronting resistance not just in the military but also within Golkar.

In the weeks after the general election, it seemed he had re-consolidated his position in Golkar. This was essential for his presidential bid. Last month, however, the situation changed radically.

The main catalyst was the Bank Bali scandal, which centres on a huge “commission” payment the bank paid a Golkar official to ensure the recovery of large debts owed by three banks, shut by the government. This has given Habibie detractors in Golkar ammunition to undermine him.

Deputy Golkar chairman Marzuki Darusman is in charge of internal party investigations and may well come up with information damaging to the President.

He told The Straits Times the probe team had uncovered information suggesting that the 546 billion rupiah (S$110 million) milked illegally from Bank Bali was to be used in “buying off” at least 450 of the 700 MPR members to secure a Habibie presidency.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this scandal goes all the way up to the top,” he said. “It could bring down the government.”

Indeed, Baligate is political dynamite for Dr Habibie. The scandal is the seventh to rock his administration this year, and analysts suspect a “hidden military hand”.

The current mess has wider implications.

Dr Habibie is being portrayed increasingly in the media as soft on corruption, whittling away his political standing here and abroad.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are threatening to withdraw foreign aid, which could cripple the economy.

The scandal has shattered already fragile investor confidence, and unsettled both financial markets in Jakarta and the rupiah.

For the foreign businessman, it is the most telling sign that the New Order skeletons of money politics are still lurking in the background and that the bad old ways remain stronger than ever.

Within the ruling party, it has driven an even deeper wedge. Dr Habibie’s challengers, mainly Mr Marzuki and chairman Akbar Tandjung, are reportedly plotting to unseat him by withdrawing his nomination.

Golkar sources said that if they did so, the party would concentrate on securing the vice- presidency and put up either Mr Akbar or Gen Wiranto as its candidate, making a Megawati-Akbar partnership also a possibility with military acquiescence, of course.

WORSE ODDS FOR HABIBIE

THREE months ago, one could have forecast a Habibie victory given the advantages of incumbency and military support.

It is a different story today.

While he can point to the difficulties of political inheritance and boast his economic successes, no one will forget Baligate and the East Timor fiasco in the MPR given the prevailing climate of domestic repugnance.

Dr Habibie would have fought the odds. But these recent events have damaged his chances considerably. In contrast to his earlier stance, he gave an idea of his current disposition when he told reporters last week that “the presidency is not important for me”.

His supporters might want to cling to power more than he does. He could, after all, turn to the strong Muslim faction as a countervailing force. In theory, at least.

Ultimately, however, it will be the military calling the shots. Who the generals vote for, the rest are likely to follow.

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