Deals will weaken Gus Dur, but he will survive

WHILE Parliament was denouncing him heatedly two weeks ago, Mr Abdurrahman Wahid lay fast asleep in the President’s chair, oblivious to the sentiments of Indonesian legislators.

That scene perhaps epitomises the current state of affairs in Indonesia: An executive blissfully unaware of the urgency of many of the country’s perilous economic and political problems and an ineffectual legislature unable to wake the President up.

But there is hope for a second chance to give the Islamic cleric a jolt at the upcoming session of the national assembly (MPR). Views vary about what can be achieved given factional differences in the 700-member MPR.

Some want to give him a gentle nudge, others a severe dressing down, and a few want him thrown out of the presidential chair altogether.

Mr Abdurrahman should expect a slightly rude awakening but nothing too serious. The prevailing constellation of forces in Indonesia’s highest decision-making body will extend his tenuous political lifeline.

His first line of defence in the polarised MPR, of course, is the faction represented by the Nation Awakening Party (PKB), the political arm of the Nadhlatul Ulama he once used to lead.

Differences with party chief Matori Abdul Jalil have dissipated over the last few months as the PKB closed ranks behind Mr Abdurrahman in the face of public attacks on his political credibility.

The most conspicuous example is their staunch defence of the 60-year-old Indonesian leader in parliament and in the national press at the height of the “Bulogate” and “Bruneigate” scandals.

The PKB will be the first to back the President’s progress report.

But 51 PKB members in the MPR is not a sufficient counterweight to the forces lined up against Mr Abdurrahman. Mr Matori, at the bidding of the President, has been working quietly behind the scenes to solicit support from the still-influential armed forces (TNI).

Despite holding only 38 seats in the assembly, the military continues to be primus inter pares in determining the political outcome in Indonesia, given its ability to sway the other MPR factions to its cause.

The military is the locomotive of change, and the palace is acutely aware of that – even more so now after realising how much damage the TNI can inflict within – and outside – the parliamentary process.


A SERIES of meetings between Mr Matori and the generals culminated in a pledge of support for Mr Abdurrahman last week. Constitutionally, as Supreme Commander of the armed forces, one would expect the TNI to give the President its full backing. Factionalism and divided loyalties in the military, however, would appear to nullify that prospect.

Indeed, Mr Abdurrahman can turn to army chief Tyasno Sudarto, who has moved up the ranks on the coat-tails of Gus Dur, for support. But Gen Tyasno himself has few supporters in the TNI, especially in the MPR, where most of them have been handpicked by former military strongman Wiranto.

As a quid pro quo for supporting him, the generals were able to secure guarantees that the armed forces’ economic interests remained untouched and that the government would “go easy” on ongoing investigations into human-rights atrocities in East Timor and Aceh.

Intelligence sources said that there was one other important compromise Mr Abdurrahman had to make. He agreed to a TNI reshuffle that weeded out the Army Strategic Reserve (Kostrad) commander, Lieutenant-General Agus Wirahadikusumah, and others opposed widely by military chief Widodo and the Wiranto clique.

Last week’s military shakeup might have appeased the hawkish generals, but the President is fooling himself if he expects them to roll over and play dead during the assembly. Despite the ad-hoc alliance between PKB and TNI, there is some risk – given Mr Wiranto’s still-pervasive political influence – the military will register some reservations.

Whatever deals might have been struck, the military will want the world to know that it continues to be relevant in Indonesia and make the “appropriate noises”, for example, in calling on the government to keep the distended archipelago united in the face of centrifugal tensions, like those in Aceh, Irian Jaya and Maluku.


FORM is significant in Indonesian political culture.

The TNI might not want to give the impression that it is beholden to Mr Abdurrahman to salvage its image of being a government tool. But in the final analysis, it is expected to stand by the President to sustain its institutional interests. MPR chairman Amien Rais and the Central Axis faction constitute another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of Gus Dur’s political survival. Dr Amien, who has long been critical of the President’s policies, has pledged publicly that the national assembly will not force Mr Abdurrahman to step down.

The American-trained academic who played a key role in Suharto’s downfall two years ago faces a dilemma this time. If he were to lead the charge in forcing Mr Abdurrahman to quit, he would be accused of being one of the central figures in bringing him to power in the first place.

Dr Amien has – to his detriment in retrospect – impressed the media regularly that “without me there would be no Gus Dur today”.

But on the other hand, if he stuck by the President who in the long run continues to perform dismally, he risked being chastised for his choice.

Dr Amien, sources from his National Mandate Party (PAN) said, would take the latter option.

The reason is simple.

He saw Mr Abdurrahman as a “lesser evil” than arch-rival Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is the most likely to replace the

President in any leadership change.

Garnering support for Gus Dur from all the factions in the Central Axis is another question altogether.

Only PAN and the United Crescent Party (PBB) are expected to support Mr Abdurrahman’s accountability speech with some reservations. Together, both factions have 47 seats in the assembly.

Dr Amien had tried to rope in the United Development Party (PPP) and its 57 seats. Sources said he failed after holding talks with PPP chief Hamzah Haz last month.


IF ANYTHING, the PPP will be the President’s chief critic at the MPR, with a possibility that several elements of the party will have strong reservations about his report and call for a special session.

It is significant that Mr Hamzah was absent despite being invited to the recent Yogyakarta meeting which brought together all of Indonesia’s other top leaders in a symbolic show of unity: Gus Dur, Ms Megawati, Dr Amien and Golkar chief Akbar Tandjung.

Mr Hamzah’s gripe with the President is personal. He was, after all, the first minister forced to resign his portfolio after being accused of corruption.

There are also political imperatives for the PPP in going alone. It viewed the Central Axis initially as a tactical alliance of Islamic parties to make Mr Abdurrahman the President.

The PPP’s long-term aim, however, was for the alliance to build the foundations of an Islamic state. That has not been forthcoming and is likely to be a thorny issue the party will raise during the MPR.

Mr Hamzah may not be Gus Dur’s only wild card.

Even if Ms Megawati and Mr Akbar have pledged to work together with the President, there is unease in the palace inner circle that the two politicians could throw a spanner in the works. After all, they have their own political ambitions. Both command the largest presence in the MPR: Ms Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) has 154 seats, and Golkar, 120.

Like the PPP, Golkar and PDI-P have been critical of their power eroding from the Cabinet. The sacking of Mr Laksamana Sukardi and Mr Yusuf Kalla from their ministerial posts in recent months is instructive in this respect.

The PDI-P is likely to go on the offensive, attacking Mr Abdurrahman for the political problems and economic mismanagement. But that is as far as it will go.

It is unlikely that the party will push for a special session or call on the President to quit. The key to PDI-P’s half-hearted stance is Ms Megawati. She has ambition but not the strategy or ruthlessness to clinch the top job.

The bigger threat for Gus Dur is from Mr Akbar, whose track record under the Suharto and Habibie administrations make him out to be the “Brutus” of Indonesian politics. He will not have any qualms driving the political dagger straight into the heart of the current establishment to achieve his goals.

His key objective is to lay the groundwork for a Golkar victory in the 2004 election and his own graduation as President or the No. 2. As Golkar and Parliamentary leader, he wants to be seen as someone who can take the lead in controlling Mr Abdurrahman.

Mr Akbar and his supporters will go for the jugular. Not everyone in the party think alike, however.

A smaller faction led by Attorney-General Marzuki Darusman wants the party to be less critical of the President and work towards a compromise in power sharing. That means sticking with the current government for another four years.

PDI-P’s indecisiveness and factionalism in Golkar works to Gus Dur’s advantage. He is also expected to secure at least half of the 200 seats from the regional representatives and professional groups in the MPR.

Given the blunder he made two weeks ago by chiding legislators and subsequently apologising, it is more probable that his progress report will be conciliatory.

What remains unclear is whether the new MPR mechanics will allow a vote on his speech.

If the legislators decide to throw in the dice, it is likely that Gus Dur will make it through by a small majority, given the assembly configuration and political dynamics at play.

Despite all the hot air, it is unlikely that the other leaders will want to risk taking power now, given the gravity of problems facing Indonesia today.

Mr Abdurrahman will survive. But he is likely to be a much weaker president as a result of the many deals and counter-deals.

Cabinet changes and a new round of power sharing should follow. Differences will be swept under the carpet for a short honeymoon period as the Indonesian leader begins the second life cycle of his rule.

Beneath the veneer of stability, fundamental problems in the country will remain.

There will be a further drift in economic policies. And Maluku and Aceh will continue to burn and fester in the Indonesian conscience as the indefatigable President struts the world stage once again at the expense of pressing issues at home.

In the months to come, one wonders whether the legislators will gang up again for another bite of the cherry.

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