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The puppet president

Far Eastern Economic Review - August 2, 2001

John McBeth and Dini Djalal, Jakarta – Sadly for Indonesia, the dramatic events of July 23 that saw Abdurrahman Wahid sacked as president and Megawati Sukarnoputri installed in his place may be only one of many more upheavals attending Indonesia's progress towards a stable and more representative government. Indeed, whether the new president can serve out her term, until 2004, remains an open question. Any Indonesian leader would be vulnerable in such a climate of political and economic instability.

Megawati's people are banking on an immediate boost from the fact that the new president is less erratic than her predecessor. "You don't have to be a genius to conclude that she will be a better president," says close aide Laksamana Sukardi, a likely senior cabinet appointee.

"Mega is a normal person! She respects due process of law, that's important." However, the new president's advisers are already signalling that normality does not guarantee miracles. "A lot of people these days, they yell about reform but they don't realize that reform is a bitter, lengthy and painful process," says Sukardi.

Here lies the bigger fear: that after two years of messy, often volatile political transition, the pendulum has swung back in favour of conservative forces and that Megawati is beholden to them. That would mean that reform will slow down, corruption could go unpunished and unchecked, and business confidence will be hard to restore. During a visit to Washington in May, Megawati's husband, politician and businessman Taufik Kiemas, left officials open-mouthed by trying to persuade them that corporate restructuring wasn't a priority.

Nevertheless, the markets initially welcomed the change. Wahid's removal saw the rupiah strengthen from 11,300 to around 9,900 to the US dollar – evidence of how much the financial community has been looking forward to a new beginning. But sentiment could change just as sharply if Megawati is unable to seed her economic team with technocrats. Equally crucial over the longer term is whether she can strike a better accord with an often rambunctious parliament, whose new powers and muscle-flexing has changed the whole nature of Indonesia's political landscape. Wahid alienated parliament early on by calling it a "kindergarten," and the aloof, 54-year-old Megawati may run into similar difficulties, given the way the relationship between the once all-powerful executive and the former rubber-stamp legislature has been redefined since President Suharto fell from power in 1998. What has emerged is a system that is both presidential and parliamentary, requiring a leader who can not only build consensus but also work within the policies laid down by the assembly.

In a country with an electoral system that serves the interests of the elite, rather than the vast majority of Indonesia's 210 million population, a plethora of old-guard politicians and bureaucrats have survived from Suharto's New Order era and now appear well placed to reappear in Megawati's administration. Wahid "may have had a point when he said Megawati is a prisoner of the New Order types still in government," says Juwono Sudarsono, a former defence minister and respected academic.

Indeed, early signals are that despite good intentions, those who expect this government to hold corrupt members of the old regime accountable may be disappointed. "Those tainted must be willing to be prosecuted by the attorney-general," declares Sukardi. But he qualifies that by saying the objective should be to purge bad habits, not necessarily bad people. "In my experience, I begin with high standards, but I may end up being more tolerant. We should not be against people of the past but against their behaviour."

Megawati is also beholden to the military, which abandoned Wahid and supported his impeachment. Her nationalist sentiments and her inclination to take firmer action against separatist rebels make her a more reliable patron of conservative political forces, and there are fears that this will keep the military in the forefront of political life. Significantly, during the course of the impeachment session, every time it was the army's turn to vote, civilian legislators applauded loudly and shouted praises.

Indeed, the pivotal role played by military leaders in the latest crisis was simply further evidence of how they have quietly been allowed to fill the power vacuum left by Suharto's demise. Last August, a new assembly decree extended military representation in parliament until 2009, five years longer than had earlier been agreed.

Says Juwono: "It was a reaffirmation of the belief that the backsliding in party-building and in strengthening civil society was a reflection of weak leadership."

Megawati's big political advantage is that she has more support than Wahid ever had in parliament. Her Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle, or PDI-P, commands 35% of the lower house, compared with the 10% held by Wahid's National Awakening Party. But while she won't have to depend on so many coalition partners to muster a majority, she will still need the support of some of the major parties. She is also said to be considering the formation of a parliamentary liaison office to keep the lines of communication open.

Megawati has steered clear of the media and rarely spoken in public, so it is hard to judge what sort of leader she will be. "She always uses her father as a role model," says Subagyo Anam, a veteran party insider, describing a presidency that will be careful to avoid tarnishing the Sukarno image. "She lives very much in his shadow." This could mean less emphasis on regional autonomy and more on maintaining unity – a scenario that worries those observing an upsurge in military activity in Aceh and Irian Jaya.

Wanted: A credible team

Everyone recognizes the importance of a credible economic team in what Megawati hopes will be a new, slimmed-down cabinet. Adviser Frans Seda, a former finance minister under Suharto, has been responsible for her closer contacts with respected economists like Emil Salim and Wijoyo Nitisastro, which Juwono believes has made her much more aware of the need for Indonesia to plug into the global marketplace. Says Sukardi: "The first thing we have to do is create positive sentiment."

But there are already signs of the political infighting that dogged Wahid's ability to form a cohesive cabinet. PDI-P officials point to brewing competition between party parliamentary leader Arifin Panigoro and former Economic Coordinating Minister Kwik Kian Gie over who will influence cabinet appointments. There is also concern about how Taufik Kiemas, Megawati's husband, will make his presence felt in the coming days, possibly over the choice of economic portfolios. Then there is the inherent distrust that exists between the PDI-P and Golkar, the two main parties in the legislature.

Still, these were days for politicians to catch their breath after the swift end to what had been a long, drawn-out process. Wahid had finally brought things to a head on July 22 with his threat to freeze the 700-seat people's assembly, suspend the former ruling Golkar party and stage new elections. But with the impeachment process already under way, the military and the police openly defied the post-midnight declaration and threw a protective cordon around the assembly.

All it required was for Supreme Court Chief Justice Bagir Manan to declare Wahid's decree unconstitutional and for the assembly to decide overwhelmingly to reject it. Barely 16 hours after Wahid's final desperate act, all 591 assembly members present in the chamber voted to end his 19-month presidency and install Vice-President Megawati.

Wearing a traditional kebaya, Indonesia's fifth president dwelled in her acceptance speech on the importance of professionalism, discipline and togetherness. And in what appeared to be a plea to Wahid to accept the outcome gracefully, Megawati told the assembly: "In my opinion, respect for the people's wishes and acceptance of what has been decided are the rules of the game – the basic principle that is the pillar of democracy."

Oddly, the vice-president had spent the previous night watching a cartoon movie in a suburban Kuningan theatre, while the man she once called her brother and friend fought vainly for his political life – with Megawati's estranged sister, Rachmawati, by his side.

Although unprecedented in Indonesia's modern political history, the run-up to impeachment had been so protracted that there was little trouble from Wahid's Muslim supporters, many of whom had long been resigned to his fate.

The morning after told the story. Two armoured cars and a mound of congratulatory floral tributes stood outside Megawati's private home in the leafy downtown suburb of Menteng. At the presidential palace, there were only barbed-wire barricades. Insiders say Wahid abandoned plans to hold out in the white-stucco palace, and his family began preparations to leave, after his wheelchair-bound wife, someone who doesn't normally give political advice, reminded him: "If you do that, you won't be able to give people moral leadership."

A messy legacy

Yet for all the concerns about staying within the bounds of the constitution, this was a messy transfer of power that may come back to haunt the political establishment. For all his defiant posturing, Wahid never had the authority to freeze the people's assembly. The constitution says so. And linking his own survival to that of the nation hardly met any of the criteria needed to take such a drastic step as declaring a state of emergency. Indeed, minutes after the 1 a.m. announcement, civil-rights lawyer Adnan Buyung Nasution described the decree as an act of sedition and called for Wahid's arrest. "He is grabbing power," he said. "He is violating the law." US-based Human Rights Watch agreed.

But assembly chairman Amien Rais and the same political leaders who had shunned Megawati and handed the presidency to Wahid in October 1999 were overreaching as well. Standing rules require two months' notice before a special session to receive a president's accountability speech. The assembly fell short by a week because it was spurred into premature action by Wahid's decision to swear in a caretaker police chief.

Apparently relishing his role as chief prosecutor, Rais always seemed to be acting prematurely in his haste to get rid of Wahid, the bitter rival he had helped to power in October 1999 because Megawati – at least at that moment in history – wasn't acceptable to Muslim parties.

On July 21, Rais formally called on the president to deliver his accountability speech long before the assembly had even approved of such a move.

What really set Wahid off was Rais' comment on July 22 that Indonesia would have a new president as early as the following morning. In a bold stroke, marines and troops from the Army Strategic Reserves were deployed in the square across from the palace, guns pointing towards the complex. But the pleas of Political Coordinating Minister Agum Gumelar and military leaders failed to sway Wahid from issuing the decree. "What has happened today," Wahid declared, "has killed the culture of dialogue."

Relations between Wahid and his generals had soured as far back as February, when he sought their support for a state of emergency to save his presidency. Juwono believes the crucial point came on July 20 when the president moved to replace police chief Surojo Bimantoro, an unlikely catalyst for the dramatic events that followed. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back," Juwono says, "because it threatened a split in the police that could have been replicated in the military."