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Tense wait as key Wahid speech nears

South China Morning Post - June 26, 2000

Vaudine England, Jakarta – Less than two months from now, President Abdurrahman Wahid will face a fractious parliament, large parts of which will seek to bring him down.

He will deliver a speech outlining his achievements in just 10 months in office but many of those who voted him into power hope to use the occasion to fatally weaken his presidency. There is no precise mechanism for doing so – at least the President maintains no vote on his speech will be necessary.

But everything done and discussed by Jakarta's political and economic elite today is being said and done with the August session of the Peoples' Consultative Assembly (MPR) in mind. Even calls for and against trying to impeach Mr Wahid at least show that this discourse is open, and that competitive politics is alive and well.

Every event signals a new round of mutual criticism, letting observers track possible alliances to come through the line-up of voices on either side.

Last week's detention by Attorney-General Marzuki Darusman of the head of the central bank, Sjahril Sabirin, is just the latest example. The heads of both houses of parliament attacked the move, accusing Mr Wahid of pressuring the legal system to pursue a personal vendetta against the bank governor.

It suits Golkar leader and House of Representatives Speaker Akbar Tandjung and MPR chairman Amien Rais to have a new stick to beat Mr Wahid with. And there is some truth in the allegations against Mr Wahid, who is not above a certain petulance.

But it also suits Mr Wahid to have Sjahril in the news for his alleged role in last year's Bank Bali scandal, to distract attention from more recent scandals closer to the President's office. It allows the Government to appear pro-active against alleged corruption and sends the message that when someone upsets him, as Sjahril did, then Mr Wahid is not a man to mess with.

All this adds to an already juicy mix of allegation, rumour and speculation across political circles. Typically, the President has given his opponents more than enough material to be used against him, not least his erratic, wilful and wayward style.

There was the presence of one of his brothers on the payroll of the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency to refresh charges of nepotism, and the case of the missing masseur from Mr Wahid's home who appears to have spirited away state funds.

Mr Wahid has not endeared himself to a certain crowd in the armed forces, some of whom could back his opponents. He has also yet to convince the nation's financial elite it is time to bring their money back to the country.

But despite his several serious mistakes and his penchant for provoking others, Mr Wahid is not short of material to use either. His statements last week about how he plans to retrieve a claimed US$45 billion from former president Suharto can also be seen as part of the waiting game ahead of the MPR session. It is a reminder of Mr Wahid's popular backing which, such as it is, relies on his reformist credentials. There is, perhaps above all, the realisation that few alternatives exist to his presidency which could match his constitutional legitimacy.

Says a veteran foreign banker: "The vast majority of the political elite wants to get back to business as it was before – just without Suharto, his family, and [timber tycoon] Bob Hasan. That's their dream, only they can't work out how to do it, and Wahid just keeps messing it up for them."