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Blind Man's Bluff
Wahid's new, non-inclusive cabinet promises more political instability

Megawati Sukarnoputri is one politician who makes waves not by her speech or her presence, but by her silence — and her absence. When President Abdurrahman Wahid announced his new 26-member cabinet on Aug. 23 at the presidential palace, the vice president was nowhere to be seen. The explanation given by Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, was that the leader of the legislature's largest faction, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P by its Iandonesian initials), was exhausted after helping him assemble the line-up. "She went home to bathe," said the half-blind Muslim cleric drolly.

Some important constitutional changes passed by the MPR:
• Reduce the president's power over laws. Even if the president does not sign a bill passed by the DPR, it still becomes law after 30 days.
Enshrine the DPR's authority to interrogate or investigate as an explicit part of the charter. When summoned by the DPR last April, Wahid argued that questioning him was unconstitutional. This argument is no longer valid.
• Introduce provisions protecting freedoms of religion, assembly, opinion, association and information, among other human rights. But a single article claiming a "human" right against retroactive prosecution -- a perceived concession to the military, which is fighting off inquiries into its past human-rights abuses -- has marred this achievement.

The truth is that she went home because she was upset. After all, the new cabinet, consisting mostly of Wahid's friends and favorites, ignores her interests. Both Kwik Kian Gie and Laksamana Sukardi, her favored PDI-P stalwarts, were not included. The cabinet's two top posts went to Wahid loyalists: Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, an ex-general who recently joined Gus Dur's National Awakening Party, was made coordinating minister in charge of politics, while economist Rizal Ramli, whom Wahid had picked to head ex-food monopoly Bulog, took the coordinating economics minister portfolio.

As Wahid had promised, the new cabinet is more streamlined than the 35-member team he assembled last October. But it is slimmer partly because those considered loyal to the PDI-P, the former ruling party Golkar or Muslim politician Amien Rais are not part of the line-up. New faces are few. More than two-thirds of the appointees are holdovers from the previous cabinet.

This was not what had been expected on Aug. 9, when Wahid told the restive People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), which had roundly criticized his past 10 months of performance, that he would hand over day-to-day government duties to his vice president. Megawati had won nearly a third of the popular vote in the July 1999 parliamentary polls, but was outmaneuvered by Wahid and assembly chief Rais in the race for the presidency.

That apparent concession to the PDI-P was key to his survival during the MPR session, which lasted from Aug. 7 to 18. Hostility against Wahid had been building since April, when he replaced two PDI-P and Golkar representatives in his cabinet with his own people (thus upsetting the delicate coalition between various contending forces). In July, parliament, or the DPR, mustered an official summons to Wahid so he could explain his decision. At that session, Wahid acidly told the 500 members of the DPR, which is part of the 695-seat MPR, that parliament had no constitutional right to question him.

Some legislators were enraged enough to propose changes to internal MPR rules that would allow the annual session of the country's highest legislative body to become a "special" one, with the authority to unseat the president. But Gus Dur survived his critics and enemies by a cunning trick: If in the DPR he was stubborn to the end, in the MPR he caved in quickly. By appearing to agree to a power-sharing arrangement, he headed off the more serious scenarios previously discussed by legislators: either to request Wahid to step down or get MPR members to call a special session to remove him.

Wahid's apparent compromise let off so much steam that the MPR left it to him to detail what duties he would delegate to Megawati. That may well be a decision it will rue. For almost immediately, it became clear that the power-sharing Wahid had in mind would not be between equals. Two days after his Aug. 9 "capitulation," Wahid adjusted his announcement: "What has been handed over to the vice president is duties not authority," he explained. "The authority remains in the president's hands." Given his current cabinet line-up, the promised power-sharing could amount to little more than what has existed before: Megawati reading out Wahid's official speeches.

Some MPs even claim now that they had moderated their criticism because they had been led to believe by Wahid's camp that they would be considered as possible ministers. Says Golkar MP Muchyar Yara: "I'm really disappointed because I wasn't named labor minister as Gus Dur promised. But this is his loss. In the future we'll be more critical." Perhaps in their greed, the politicians were blinded to the obvious: As politics moves from the MPR floor back to the presidential palace, power inevitably flows from the parties back to the president. Less than two weeks after their cadres pressured Wahid on his annual report, party leaders found themselves trooping to the palace to beg for positions.

"Gus Dur cannot be changed," says J. Kristiadi, deputy director of Jakarta's Center for Strategic and International Studies. By leading everyone else to think that he might, the clever Wahid may just have pulled off a daring, and extremely effective, political swindle. Yet with so much unresolved in their August scuffle, the debilitating conflict between president and politicians can only pick up again — and this time, with a vengeance. Political analyst Soedjati Djiwandono cannot predict the winner. But he says: "I can tell you who loses: the Indonesian people."

For all his guile, Wahid has not emerged entirely unbloodied. The MPR also has the authority to amend the country's 1945 Constitution. Among the amendments passed were articles explicitly defining the authority of the DPR, especially in passing laws and in questioning or investigating government activities (see box below). When the DPR returns to its session, legislators plan to investigate the windling of $4 million from Bulog by Wahid's masseur, as well as a "personal gift" of $2 million that Wahid received from Brunei's Sultan. "If we can prove that he is involved in those scandals, it will mean he has abused his power," says Golkar MP Ade Komaruddin. But the process by which the DPR can call for a special MPR session is long and arduous. So more months of infighting and instability are likely to be ahead.

That the MPR did not succeed in doing what it had been most determined to accomplish — to emasculate Wahid, or at least to force him to respect its component parties' wishes — and instead was humiliated draws attention to the session's other failures. In the 12-day, $3-million conference, the MPR touched only 10 of the 21 articles put up for amendment. It left unresolved such key points in the Constitution as the powers of the judiciary, the regional councils and the MPR itself. The body also disappointed many reformists — especially by making numerous concessions to the military.

In the absence of strong internal opposition, the MPR allowed the military to retain its representation in the assembly until 2009. A chapter on human rights now written into the Constitution even includes a clause protecting citizens from prosecution for offenses committed before a law was promulgated — a loophole that may help the armed forces evade answering for past human-rights abuses.

The advance of conservatives in the military began even before the MPR opened. On July 31, the military's most outspoken supporter of reform, Maj.-Gen. Agus Wirahadikusumah, was relieved as chief of the Army Strategic Reserve in an apparent backlash against his public criticism early this year of his superior, ex-armed forces chief Gen. Wiranto.

Maj.-Gen. Saurip Kadi, one of a number of military reformists who were transferred out at about the same time, claims that reform in the armed forces has been put on hold, if not eliminated. The same might be said of politics in general. "Where is the sense of reform?" cries Saurip. "Don't people in parliament, government and the military realize that they have betrayed the pure initiative of the student movement to convert the country from a military to a civil society?"

Wahid might have sold out Megawati with his new cabinet, but the MPR sold out as well — and got nothing. That Indonesia's leaders postured and maneuvered for profit or survival instead of building a solid constitutional basis for political reform and economic development is but the latest bitter lesson for Indonesia's young democracy.

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