The winds of change


It was one frenetic week of intense horse-trading and behind-the- scenes manoeuvring in Jakarta. Here is the story of how the new Indonesian revolution unfolded.

CHAPTER 1 – Habibie’s exit

WHEN Mr Abdurrahman Wahid won the Indonesian presidential election this week, the national assembly broke into victorious Islamic chants and songs.

Assembly Speaker Amien Rais urged in vain for those celebrating to sing the national anthem, Indonesia Raya, instead. But the rowdy members of the country’s highest legislative body persisted in their vociferous expression of support for the leader of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation.

It was obvious.

The Muslim vote elevated Mr Abdurrahman to the highest office in Indonesia.

It was perhaps the same Muslim vote that scuttled ex-President B.J. Habibie’s chances of being re-elected.

And it was also the card used in the eleventh hour to prop up another Islamic protagonist Hamzah Haz for the vice-presidency against the more secular-oriented Megawati Sukarnoputri.

They failed this time.

The weight of history, threats of social revolution, Mr Abdurrahman’s open support for Ms Megawati, and the fact that the party with the largest votes in the June general election were about to walk away without a single prized position in government, brought legislators to their senses.

When Dr Amien hit the final gavel on Thursday and described the whole process as “a beautiful game”, almost every major player had a stake in the new government.

The country stood on the threshold of an era of political change.

The partnership of the charismatic Islamic scholar Abdurrahman and the populist daughter of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno marked a definitive break from the past.

The power-sharing was an antidote against a nation tearing at its seams from religious and ethnic conflicts.

The swing to optimism comes after one week of intense horse-trading and behind-the-scenes manoeuvring. The heartbeat of Indonesian politics was most erratic at this stage.

THE drama began on Oct 17.

Dr Habibie stood in the MPR podium, flanked by his military adjutants, to put up a nearly three-hour defence of his turbulent 17 months in power.

It was a last-ditch attempt by the deeply unpopular figure to cling on to power.

Against a backdrop of boos, and at least two interruptions, the beleaguered German-trained aeronautical engineer, who was a Suharto protege, outlined the difficulties of inheritance and the steps he took to turn around a nation in crisis.

As he spoke, thousands of students and supporters of rival political parties massed outside the parliament complex confronting riot squads, who fired tear gas and water cannons at them to ward them off as they sang anti-government slogans and called on Dr Habibie to step down.

Dr Habibie, brimming with confidence, did not want to hear anything of that.

Referring sometimes to statistics and economic charts from a 250-page appendix to his main text, he boasted of his accomplishments in the economy.

Inflation was down, the rupiah had strengthened and banks were being restructured.

“Compared with the very bad economic situation when the transfer of leadership took place in May 1998, the economic conditions now are far better,” he said.

Making it clear that his audience was not just domestic, he took pains to point out that he had also transformed Indonesia into a full-fledged democracy.

Those who were jailed during Mr Suharto’s New Order regime were being released. There was also a free press now. But he chose to dodge thorny questions that had dogged his administration over the last year, in particular, the East Timor debacle, the Bank Bali loan scandal and the Suharto probe.

He paid dearly for that and had to return on Sunday for another round of defence.

It did not work.

Five factions, including three with the largest blocs in the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), rejected his speech. The assembly threw in the towel and called for a vote on Tuesday.

Dr Habibie’s campaign team went into overdrive as they sought to influence the outcome by money. Up to US$200,000 (S$332,400) from the election treasure chest was offered for each vote.

The opposition did not lie low. They sought to fight the pervasive influence of money politics by forging last-minute alliances.

Ms Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) held secret talks over the weekend with Golkar reformers and the Nation Awakening Party to forge an entente to defeat Dr Habibie’s efforts to crawl back from the jaws of defeat.

They also kept a line to the Central Axis Muslim-based parties, especially the National Mandate Party and the Justice Party, who were dead against the return of anything that bore a semblance to the New Order government, with which they identified the Habibie administration.

As money was changing hands and rival political parties plotted around the clock, Golkar reformers, led by chairman Akbar Tandjung and his deputy Marzuki Darusman, began an internal postmortem of the accountability speech.

They were under pressure from their supporters to invoke the party’s “discretionary powers” to withdraw Dr Habibie’s candidacy from the presidential race if the MPR rejected his speech.

To keep the party united in the face of pressure from Habibie loyalists, however, they accepted his speech in public with caveats.

Mr Akbar and his band of supporters wanted the MPR to be the final arbiter of Dr Habibie’s political fate.

Both sides went into battle blinkered by perceptions of their own strength, more perhaps in the case of the Habibie faction, who expected money politics and strong ties to Muslim-oriented parties to give the President a vote of confidence.

But prevailing splits in the major parties like Golkar and the Muslim-based United Development Party, riding on the wave of political expediency – rather than any ideological and religious affinity – made it difficult for Dr Habibie’s henchmen to use them as a countervailing force.

The final nail in the coffin was armed forces (TNI) chief General Wiranto’s withdrawal from the vice-presidential race. The underlying motivation for his move was political survival.

By disengaging himself from the race after almost reaching the finishing line, he increased his powers of leverage vis-a-vis the civilians, by keeping equidistant between the two front-runners, and shaping the contours of new battle lines.

For Gen Wiranto, the choice would have been to risk losing on a ticket with the President – and provoke violence on the streets on top of that – or to put up a brave face and claim neutrality.

The General chose the latter option, making his announcement in a six-minute statement on Monday, a day before legislators were to vote on the accountability speech.

The consequence of his action, intended or unintended, was to damage severely the President’s chances for another term in office.

It did.

Dr Habibie lost – by a whisker.

The MPR voted 355-322 late on Tuesday night to reject him.

Not wanting to submit himself to another indignity of defeat, he pulled out of the contest.

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