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A new president, as well as an old one, for Indonesians

New York Times - July 23, 2001

Seth Mydans, Jakarta – In the most peaceful transfer of power in Indonesia's history, Megawati Sukarnoputri was sworn in as president today, moments after the nation's top legislative body voted to cut short the fractious and rudderless tenure of her predecessor.

But in a historical novelty, Indonesia, the world's fourth-most-populous nation, was left with two claimants to the presidency as Abdurrahman Wahid refused to recognize the action to remove him and remained isolated in his official residence.

With his power having vanished literally overnight, his ministers resigning one after another and the crowds of supporters he had counted on failing to materialize, Mr. Wahid, 61, made no public statement today. He appeared for a moment as evening fell, waving forlornly from the palace veranda, dressed in a pair of striped shorts and a white polo shirt.

His aides said he had no intention of making way for Mrs. Megawati, and government officials said there were no immediate plans to force him to leave.

Mrs. Megawati, the daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, appears to have felt that it was her destiny eventually to inherit his mantle. But as a politician, she has remained detached from the fray.

Mr. Wahid is the first Indonesian president to cling to office once it became clear that his power was gone. But his stubbornness seemed only a sidelight to the nation's affairs.

Mrs. Megawati's inauguration, 21 months after Mr. Wahid outmaneuvered her in a parliamentary vote for president, was marked by a surge of hope and relief that the political arm-wrestling might be over.

Leaders of opposing parties pledged to give her a chance to restore political order, address separatist and religious conflicts and revive the economy in this battered and unstable nation of 210 million people.

All 592 of the 700 delegates in the People's Consultative Assembly who were present voted to strip Mr. Wahid of the presidency for his failure to account to the legislature for his actions and for his attempt earlier this morning to disband it.

That vote automatically elevated Mrs. Megawati, 54, from the vice presidency to become Indonesia's fifth president – and its fourth in the last three turbulent years.

Mr. Wahid's party and one other small party boycotted the session of the assembly, which includes the Parliament and representatives of the military and regional and special interest groups and which has the power to elect and remove presidents. The assembly must now elect a vice president, a politically crucial choice. Mrs. Megawati said she would appoint her cabinet later this week.

Regal in a long white jacket and purple sash, Mrs. Megawati paused a moment and tapped the microphone as she rose to take the oath of office. A Muslim clergyman held a copy of the Koran above her head as she promised to uphold the Constitution.

In the brief inaugural speech that followed, she called for unity and cooperation in solving Indonesia's problems as it moves to strengthen its democratic system.

"Democracy demands gracefulness, sincerity and obedience to the rules of the game," she said in a comment that could have been intended in part for Mr. Wahid. "I am calling on all parties to accept this democratic process gracefully."

Mrs. Megawati will return to the presidential palace where she lived as a girl – once Mr. Wahid moves out. In the meantime, she remains in the vice presidential residence.

When she was 19, in 1966, her father was deposed by Suharto, who ruled Indonesia as a military strongman until he was forced to resign in May 1998. His vice president, B. J. Habibie, replaced him briefly until the election of Mr. Wahid.

All of those transitions were attended by bloodshed. Hundreds of thousands of people died in an anti-Communist purge when Mr. Suharto came to power. He departed during some of the deadliest rioting in Indonesia's history when sections of Jakarta were burned and vandalized. Mr. Wahid took office at a time of continuing violence and tension, his inauguration day marred by more riots and bloodshed.

But apart from a number of trouble spots where separatist, ethnic or religious conflicts continue, Indonesia has been growing slowly calmer after the upheaval of Mr. Suharto's ouster.

Today's transition was not trouble free, however. One person was injured in a bomb explosion, the latest in a string of bombings, most of them at churches, that have injured scores of people in recent days. As with much of the violence that has come and gone around the country, the motives for the bombings remained unclear. There was no way to know whether they were related to the politics of the day.

As Mrs. Megawati took her oath of office this afternoon, piles of congratulatory wreaths grew higher outside her gated residence, a sure sign that power had shifted and that there was a new leader to be courted. In the assembly, as one speaker after another lavished praise on Mrs. Megawati, other delegates heckled them with shouts of "There's another job seeker!"

In the parking lot outside, aides removed from her limousine the bright red license plate reading "Indonesia 2" and replaced it with another bright red license plate, this one reading "Indonesia 1."

Inside the presidential palace, far from the new center of power, a spokesman said Mr. Wahid ate a hearty lunch of soybean cakes and fruit, his usual meal, then took a rest. "At lunch Wahid laughed and joked," said the spokesman, Yahya Staquf. "Lunch was normal." Mr. Yahya said Mr. Wahid planned to stay on at the residence, convinced that he remained the rightful president.

Only hours before, shortly after midnight, Mr. Wahid had issued a decree suspending Parliament and calling for new elections. With no one left to carry out his orders, the decree was ignored.

But his spokesman said Mr. Wahid believed himself to be on a holy mission. "The president considers the decree he issued as a jihad to save the state," he said. It was a notion that seemed to make sense to few people besides Mr. Wahid himself.

Through much of his tenure, Mr. Wahid, a Muslim cleric and scholar, seemed out of step with his nation. As he appeared to lack a clear focus and lurched from one impulsive idea to another, the main impression he created was bewilderment.

At various times he took his country by surprise by suggesting opening diplomatic relations with Israel, legalizing the Communist Party and holding a referendum on separate statehood in the restive province of Aceh. All these ideas touched raw nerves here and all were dropped.

A brilliant intellectual, a committed democrat, a decent and charming man, Mr. Wahid clearly had high ideals for his country. But he appeared to have little capacity for putting them into effect. In the end, he remained as much a puzzle to his country as he was on the day of his election.