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Time for leadership

Time Magazine - July 3, 2000

Terry McCarthy, Jakarta – When President Abdurrahman Wahid moved into the presidential palace last October, his spirits and those of the country were riding high. After 32 years of Suharto's dictatorship and 18 months of interim rule by Suharto's former deputy B.J. Habibie, Indonesia was finally getting a reformist President who preached tolerance and openness and promised to let democracy flourish.

There was hope that two years of economic crisis and political chaos were over, and that Indonesia was finally on track to move ahead. But as the Wahid clan mounted the steps of the Istana Merdeka, a dukun – Javanese soothsayer – close to the family called the party to halt, warning that the spirit of "the big man" was standing in the doorway. The dukun insisted on carrying out a prayer ritual before the First Family could enter the building.

Gus Dur, as the President is known to his 200 million fellow citizens, waited for the soothsayer to finish before crossing the threshold. "It was the black power of Suharto," says the President's daughter Yenny, who witnessed the event. "He is trying to hurt us. We have white power – we just defend, we won't hurt anyone."

Thus began the bizarre reign of Indonesia's fourth President, a man so contradictory that even his closest aides say they cannot understand him half the time. With one foot in the traditional world of Javanese mysticism and the other in the modern era of globalization, Wahid's internal compass spins wildly in all directions. A Muslim cleric from a distinguished family line, he trades dirty jokes with his friends and barbed compliments with his enemies.

He says he will fire military chief Wiranto, relents, and then fires him for real, all in the space of 24 hours. He praises America's support for his democratic reforms, but then pays court to Fidel Castro, Muammar Gaddafi and other leaders of the unfree world. He tells his economic advisers he wants capital controls on the rupiah, then changes his mind later that day. An incessant traveler, voracious reader (until his eyesight failed following a stroke two years ago) and obsessive gossip, Wahid relishes controversy, fears nobody and has a joke for every occasion.

When he took office, Wahid's unpredictability was interpreted as an asset, enabling him to keep foes off balance as he began his mission to cleanse Indonesia of the legacies of Suharto and his military-backed rule. But eight months on, even his supporters are starting to worry that Wahid's increasingly erratic behavior is a liability, particularly in the economic sphere where the country desperately needs to restore stability and a sense of confidence among domestic and foreign investors. In April Wahid fired two key economic ministers, and last week the governor of the central bank was arrested on suspicion of corruption, pushing the rupiah to one of its lowest levels against the dollar since the President took over. "It is becoming an issue, at least among his economic team, whether Wahid is an asset or not," says Sri Mulyani Indrawati, Secretary of Wahid's National Economic Council. "We are concerned about what's best for the country – but we need a more predictable decision-making process."

Indonesia is in a precarious state. The economy is barely holding together, and mounting ethnic and religious strife makes many Indonesians fear that the country could disintegrate. Last week alone more than 150 Christians and Muslims were killed in the Maluku islands, and separatist tensions are again boiling up in Papua and Aceh. "Gus Dur is saying, 'Let [the provinces] voice their aspirations,' but he is not giving them any outlet," says Endy Bayuni, editor of the Jakarta Post. The pressure for change in relations between Jakarta and the provinces is mounting, Bayuni says. Things "could turn violent – in which case Indonesia could just break up."

Much now depends on the enigmatic character of Wahid. Few would dispute that he is genuinely committed to confronting the "black force" of Suharto's poisoned legacy and improving Indonesians' lives. But conviction may not be enough. Says Muhaimin Iskandar, parliamentary head of Wahid's National Awakening Party: "From the beginning, management has been his problem."

The heat is turning up under Wahid and his capricious management style. Returning last Wednesday from another extended trip abroad (Wahid has visited 34 countries since October; his critics cite this as proof that he is not devoting enough time to domestic problems), the President faced renewed calls from student activists to bring Suharto to trial for corruption. Protesters are outraged at revelations of the government's secret talks with the Suharto family, at Wahid's behest, apparently aimed at pardoning the 79-year-old former dictator if he returns some money to the state. At the same time, accusations of corruption are creeping nearer to the President's closest advisers. His personal masseur allegedly embezzled $4.7 million from the national rice distribution agency Bulog. The intervention of a friend of Wahid's reportedly led to the revoking of a $100 million power-transmission-line contract that had been put to tender under the previous government. Some parliamentarians are even threatening to start impeachment proceedings against the President, perhaps when he makes a scheduled "accountability speech" in August. "His inner circle poses the greatest threat," says Zastrouw Ngatawi, a former assistant to Gus Dur and author of a book about him.

"People are using his name, and this will distract from the ideas he is trying to put into practice." Certainly, there's little to fault in Wahid's ideas. On a recent trip to Lombok, a tourist island whose hotels emptied after an outbreak of Christian-Muslim violence in January, Wahid preaches a gentle message of tolerance to both sides of the community. He does not give speeches in public, but chatters on in a bantering tone interspersed with frequent jokes, as if he were talking to a neighbor across the garden fence. Sitting in an armchair in front of a crowd at the Asaluddin pesantren (traditional Muslim school), Wahid slips into a monologue. "Christians have their day of rest on Sunday, but for Muslims it is Friday, and that is all right, everyone is different. Children throw pillows at each other, but when you grow up and get married you throw plates, and it is natural to have emotions – just like the troubles that broke out here in January. It is not religion that needs to be improved, but the teaching of it that matters. What is important is clean government, the rule of law and open minds of the people, so we can all be brothers."

Later, he attends Friday prayers at a mosque and, as is his custom, engages in a question-and-answer session with the men present. One man angrily asks why Wahid and the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the 30-million member Muslim organization he once led, have not done more to base the new government on Islamic principles. Other worshipers indicate support for the questioner, but Wahid calmly tells them that he is not going to make Indonesia an Islamic country. There are other religions that need to be respected, he says, and the NU never intended to push for an Islamic state. By the way, he continues, the NU was founded by 6,000 wise Muslim clerics, and did the questioner want to criticize all 6,000 of them? The crowd dissolves into laughter, and the questioner is speechless. Wahid's wit has again rescued him from a tricky situation.

On the plane from Lombok to Solo in central Java, where he is to address a meeting of mystics, Wahid laughs about the incident. "That man likes to think of himself as a defender of Islam," he says. "But there is no point in defending Islam in an uncompromising way, forcing confrontation with Christians. I have to do away with that. These people want to enforce their own identity, but I say we must talk about it."

And talk he does, untiringly. The next day he has breakfast in the palace with former general Edi Sudrajat to discuss the problems of nationalism and the military. Later, he calls Australian Prime Minister John Howard in connection with a state visit to clear the bad blood over East Timor, he debriefs Minister of Foreign Affairs Alwi Shihab who has just returned from the US, he talks with the central bank about the rate of the rupiah and then explains on TV his controversial proposal to lift the ban on communism, imposed after the bloody 1965 coup that brought Suharto to power. "We have left that decision too long," he says after the show is over. "How can you ban a teaching? That would be against the freedom of expression."

It is late afternoon, and Wahid is in a jokey mood. After talking about Suharto's current state of affairs – "He is disappointed and angry, because he thinks nobody understands him" – Wahid recalls the last joke he told the former dictator. "I visited him shortly after he stepped down, in the economic crisis. He asked me to stay the night, but I said I had another appointment. I said I could leave him with a kyai (Muslim cleric) who was with me, to say evening prayers. Suharto said, 'O.K., that is what I want.' So I asked him if he wanted the old way or the new way? Suharto was puzzled. I said the old way is when they say 23 prayers, but the new way, with the economy the way it is, you get a 60% discount."

He segues into a joke about Lee Kuan Yew's barber, then tells the story of how he made the Saudi King laugh on television with a whispered vulgar joke, marking the first time the Saudi people ever saw their King's teeth. Before the laughter subsides, he begins explaining why Indonesia should open relations with Israel – taboo up to now among the country's majority Muslim population – and then talks about a book he plans to write on modernizing Islamic philosophy. He is upbeat: tonight he is going to a wayang performance of shadow puppets, and it has been arranged that the puppeteer will engage Wahid in a humorous debate.

The hall is full when the President arrives – he is led to a chair in the first row and starts munching on the sweets and fruits laid out in front of him. The performance starts with the distinctive music of gamelan, metal xylophones, and the puppetmaster comes onstage and begins manipulating the puppets in front of a white screen. Halfway through the story of the knight Arjuna trying to cut the hair of the court jester Semar, thus depriving him of his power, the puppeteer turns to the audience and starts throwing questions at Wahid and two prominent guests sitting with him. They trade jibes about various politicians, keeping the audience laughing until the puppeteer asks Wahid whether he has changed since he became President. "I am afraid I am also a player in a larger story that I don't control," replies Wahid, suddenly serious. "I am a puppet that will be put back in the box when I am no longer needed."

Wahid's self-effacing manner is as effective as his wit in keeping his opponents guessing. Both traits have their roots in his family origins: Wahid's father and grandfather were highly respected Muslim scholar-teachers. The journey into the complexity of Gus Dur ends where it all started, in the town of Jombang in East Java, where Abdurrahman Wahid was born in 1940. His grandfather Hasyim Asy'ari founded the NU, and his father Wahid Hasyim became Indonesia's first Minister of Religion under the Sukarno regime in the 1940s. As the first son in such an illustrious Muslim family, the young Wahid acquired the honorific "Gus," a title given only to high-level kyai. (Dur is a contraction of his given name, Abdurrahman.) From an early age he was treated with deference by older Muslim scholars, and he grew up with a sense of entitlement that never left him.

It was in the traditional pesantren in Jombang that Wahid learned the Koran, and also the habits of the kyai, the clerics who tend to sit around joking and debating late into the night, scoring points off one another. With the intimacy of boarding schools and the regimen of monasteries, the pesantren produce sharpened wits and grand ideas far removed from the everyday world outside the compound walls. "What amazed me most about Gus Dur as a student was the number of books in his room," says Sholeh Abdul Hamid, a cousin of Wahid's who headed the Tambakberas pesantren when the future President studied there as a teenager. "And his jokes ... He was always like that – that's the way kyai communicate, to diminish their own self-importance."

Despite stints studying in Cairo and Baghdad – mostly spent reading Western literature and watching movies – Wahid has never really left the world of the Javanese pesantren. It centers him. He relies on the NU organization for his political support and still meets regularly with a wide network of kyai friends. Hamid, for instance, visited just last month: "He told me his cabinet is full of thieves. He hasn't changed at all since becoming President."

Which gets to the heart of Wahid's predicament. He has brought the habits of the pesantren into the presidential palace. The mystic's tendency to laugh in the face of human vanity, the high-brow idealism with little practical experience of implementation, the autocratic manner of the senior kyai – these traits bewilder many of the people who work with him. "Gus Dur is committed to democracy in principle," says Nurcholish Madjid, professor of Islamic studies at Paramadina Mulya University and one of Indonesia's most prominent intellectuals. "But he is not a democrat himself. He is a 'Gus,' a highly honorific title that implies a kind of immunity."

Wahid's immunity, however, may be wearing thin in the rough and tumble of Jakarta politics. As corruption scandals involving people around him come to light, the President's judgment is being called into question. Some critics say he is deliberately putting members of NU into powerful positions ahead of more-qualified candidates for petty political reasons. "All the pathologies of the past regime remain in the system," says Laksamana Sukardi, the former minister in charge of state-owned enterprises, whom Wahid fired in April, replacing him with Rozy Munir, a prominent NU leader.

Amien Rais, a rival to Wahid who serves as Speaker of the People's Consultative Assembly and leader of the more dogmatic Muslim organization Muhammadiyah, has launched a campaign to have the President's health examined by independent doctors. The intention is to embarrass Wahid by suggesting that his erratic decisions are evidence of mental instability. Wahid has had two strokes, the second in January 1998, and he suffers from diabetes.

The two conditions have left him blind, although he still keeps to an incredibly busy schedule. Desperate to regain some vision, he has made several visits to eye specialists in the US, but so far they have made little progress in restoring his sight.

As the criticism mounts, Wahid seems undaunted, at least in public. "Let them say what they want about me," he says. "I don't care." But in private he rails against his enemies, many of whom he calls dishonest in their attacks on him.

"Their way is to make me emotional, and they think I will have another stroke." His supporters fear that Wahid's blindness and sense of being threatened have made him withdraw even more into a private space where he will listen only to a small group of trusted family members and advisers, whose counsel is totally unaccountable and potentially motivated by self interest. Otherwise, his safest refuge is humor. It comes easily to him – almost as a default mode – and it drives others mad. "We will all become hostages to his craziness," says former minister Laksamana.

And yet, despite the mounting attacks on Wahid, there are few viable alternatives to his leadership for the time being. "How can we expect him to fix 32 years of corrupt behavior in just six months?" asks Jajang C. Noer, an Indonesian actress. "This country has been so devastated by mismanagement that I cannot imagine who would be a better alternative." Wahid has positioned himself as a benign ayatollah, aiming to lead Indonesia away from the forces of darkness that still emanate from Suharto and his poisonous legacy. But as Wahid told the Solo puppeteer, he is now a player in a larger story that he doesn't control. The danger is that his "white power" will not be strong enough to pull the country along with him, and that he and his retinue will get sucked backward into the dark old ways of corruption and nepotism that have become so deeply entrenched in Indonesia. If that happens, not even the strongest dukun will be able to protect him.

[With reporting by Zamira Loebis, Jombang and Jason Tedjasukmana, Jakarta.]