MPR rejects Habibie’s speech

President loses vote narrowly; result shows political alignments towards his challengers, especially Megawati.

President B.J. Habibie’s quest for another five years received a severe reality check last night when his accountability speech was rejected narrowly by the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR).

In a historic secret ballot that began at 9.30 pm Jakarta time (10.30 pm Singapore time), 355 of the 690 assembly members present voted to reject his account of his 17-month rule, in effect telling him that they had no confidence in him at the helm as spectators in the gallery cheered.

Although widely expected, the vote was more symbolic than punitive as Dr Habibie can still proceed to today’s presidential poll in the MPR.

More significantly, it reflected the evolving political alignments in favour of his challengers, especially Ms Megawati Soekarnoputri.

For her, the vote was the acid test of the strength of the alliances she and her aides have built with the so-called reformist wings cutting across several parties, including Dr Habibie’s Golkar.

But the thin margin of victory for the anti-Habibie camp – 322 voted to accept while 9 abstained and four spoilt their votes – should send a wake-up call to Ms Megawati that she needed to work harder to secure victory.

Faced with the reality that her opponent still retained great resources, she might now have to turn to the powerful military chief General Wiranto for help.

Last night’s tally suggested too that now unalloyed, most of the 96 military votes he controlled probably voted for the President.

Meanwhile, the well-organised Habibie camp, anticipating an attempt by the Golkar central board to abandon his nomination with the rejection of his speech, succeeded in gathering signatures from 70 legislators – the legal minimum – to renominate him, insiders said.

Quite apart from the deals Megawati aides and those in Golkar more inclined to work with her say they have worked out, the political map still remains murky with the presence of a third candidate, Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid.

If the race were strictly between Dr Habibie and Ms Megawati, then the choice could have boiled down to a contest between status quo and reformist forces.

But if the three-horse race came down eventually to Mr Abdurrahman, the leader of Indonesia’s largest Islamic movement, against Ms Megawati, the daughter of the country’s nationalistic first president Sukarno, then the temptation to succumb to a Muslim versus secular nationalist dichotomy will be hard to resist.

Derwin Pereira reports: Early this morning, Dr Habibie held talks with several members of the Golkar executive board, including its chairman Akbar Tandjung, to decide whether he will “stay on to fight”.

Family members are urging him to quit and close supporters said it would be difficult to support him for the presidency. His chances are very slim now.

The vote on Dr Habibie’s accountability speech aside, legislators yesterday also endorsed East Timor’s decision to split from Indonesia and agreed to close presidential nominations only three hours before the poll takes place at 10 am today.

2AM LATEST: Vote tally
Accept: 322 Reject: 355 Abstain: 9 Spoilt: 4

Posted in Indonesia