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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 29, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 43

Maneuvering to the Top amid Chaos
In a dramatic twist, Abdurrahman Wahid becomes Indonesia's leader. Can he rule?
By SANGWON SUH and JOSE MANUEL TESORO Jakarta


Shortly after the vote, a car blew up in the capital, injuring five people. The incident was one of two explosions that shook Jakarta that day
Kemal Jufri for Asiaweek
To the casual observer, it was a moment of euphoria. Watched by emotional supporters - not to mention millions of television viewers across the country and around the world - a smartly dressed Abdurrahman Wahid sat beside Megawati Sukarnoputri and held up her hand in a show of solidarity. Declaring the occasion a victory for all involved - "our second independence," he called it - he asked the delegates to sing the national anthem. Throughout the refrain, many of those present, including Megawati, were clearly misty-eyed.

What was less clear, though, was why Megawati had tears in her eyes. She might have been overwhelmed by the occasion - or she might have been mourning her defeat. For she had just lost the ultimate prize, the presidency, to the half-blind Muslim cleric seated next to her. In the long-awaited, suspense-filled presidential vote, the 695-member People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), Indonesia's highest decision-making body, chose Wahid as the country's first freely elected leader. The final result: 373 votes for Wahid, 313 for Megawati. Wahid's magnanimous gesture probably did not make the loss any more palatable to his defeated rival.

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Cover: Maneuvering to the Top
In a dramatic twist, Abdurrahman Wahid becomes Indonesia's leader. Can he rule?

Indonesia: The Road To Rejection The events surrounding Habibie's fall

Battle For Balance Wahid's mediation allowed the Big Three to bridge basic differences

East Timor: 'This Was Systematic' In East Timor, a trail of death and destruction

Pakistan: Is This Man Starting to Enjoy Power? Musharraf may be in charge for a while. Pakistanis aren't griping. Yet

United States: Fallout on Capitol Hill Domestic squabbles nix an international nuclear accord

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It certainly wasn't palatable to her supporters. In the run-up to the Oct. 20 vote, her followers, dressed in the red of her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), had been flooding into Jakarta from around the country in a fervent show of support. To them, anything other than a Megawati victory was unthinkable. After all, the PDI-P had a clear mandate: It had won the largest share of the vote in June's parliamentary elections (34%) and had the most seats in the MPR (185 - 153 seats in parliament or the DPR, plus 32 regional representatives). It seemed only right that Megawati become the next president.

Given such expectations, the defeat was all the more crushing. On the day of the vote, Megawati followers gathered in a roundabout near Jakarta's Hotel Indonesia in anticipation of exultant celebrations. Instead, they ended up venting their anger by setting fire to tires and toll booths. By nightfall, police were battling some 20,000 protesters with tear gas and water cannons. The tension was heightened by two explosions that rocked the capital that day; in one of the incidents, a car blew up shortly after the vote, leaving five injured. Meanwhile, riots erupted in Bali, a Megawati stronghold, and Solo, Central Java, where demonstrators reportedly burned down two banks and the residence of a relative of Amien Rais, the leader of the Muslim-linked National Mandate Party and chairman of the MPR.

While congratulating Wahid, international leaders called on Indonesians to accept the result. Megawati, 52, herself appeared on TV to urge restraint: "For the sake of national unity, I call on all Indonesians to accept this situation." But it was not clear if Megawati could control her angry supporters - or even if she wanted to. Like her admirers, she had convinced herself of the rightfulness of her claim to the presidency. Thus, according to a close friend, she felt totally betrayed by Wahid, who had long presented himself as a Megawati ally and a supporter of her candidacy. After his victory, Wahid wanted to go out together with Megawati to meet her supporters in the streets - and head off the kind of violence that ensued. But Megawati reportedly left for her house instead. "I never imagined such a close friend could betray me," she was quoted as saying. "Now it is up to him to handle my people." (She did return later to the MPR to witness Wahid's inauguration. And she returned the following day, this time to be elected Wahid's vice president.)

The markets were not too happy about Wahid's election either. Stock prices surged 9.5% within minutes of the opening bell and the rupiah appreciated 7.5%, but all the gains were lost as news of Wahid's victory spread. "Markets don't like surprises," says Tim Condon, Hong Kong-based regional economist with ING Barings. "[Wahid] was a surprise, and his economic policies are unknown."

Surprise or no, the swearing in of Wahid, 59, as Indonesia's fourth president was the culmination of a long and exhausting political process. That the Egypt-educated cleric has survived it and emerged victorious is a testament to his politicking skills, as well as to the quirks of Indonesia's democratic system. His National Awakening Party (PKB) came third in the June polls (13%) and sits fourth in terms of actual number of MPR seats (57). Until the day of the presidential vote, the limelight was hogged by front-runner Megawati and outgoing president B.J. Habibie of the Golkar party. Wahid was seen as a dark horse.

But the relatively low profile may have been a blessing for Wahid (popularly known as Gus Dur), who did not fall into the trap of complacency as Megawati apparently did. After her seemingly convincing electoral victory in June, the daughter of founding president Sukarno did nothing to build alliances that would ensure her the presidency and make her an effective leader. At the same time, the wily leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the 30-million-strong Muslim mass movement, was constantly positioning and repositioning himself in the byzantine world of Indonesian politics. As early as June, Wahid told Asiaweek of his presidential ambitions: "I will be the one. Why not?"

Initially, he, Megawati and Rais were part of the "reformist" camp that opposed the "status quo" forces of Golkar and the military. Then, while continuing to support Megawati's presidential bid, he became the standard-bearer for what was dubbed the Center Axis, a loose alliance of Muslim parties. Still later, with the competition between nationalist forces, represented by Megawati, and Rais's political Islam becoming more pronounced in the legislature, Wahid positioned himself as the middle ground. In short, he became all things to all people, acceptable to both Megawati's Muslim opponents and familiar to her nationalist supporters.

But for all Wahid's maneuvering skills, the presidency would have remained a distant possibility had it not been for the dramatic events that caused Habibie to drop out of the race barely hours before the vote. Despite being dismissed by many as a leftover from predecessor Suharto's discredited New Order regime, Habibie endured opposition - even from within his own party - and put up a stubborn fight to remain a key political contender. He poured Golkar's formidable resources into his election bid. He was also helped by powerful vested interests whose corrupt dealings and arrangements (such as the unfolding Bank Bali scandal) would be best kept under wraps if Habibie remained president.

Everything unravelled in the week before the presidential vote. On Oct. 14, Habibie gave his accountability speech to the MPR to defend his record as president. Three days later he made an emotional appeal to the same delegates, asking them to forgive his "shortcomings." But mercy was not forthcoming. On Oct. 18, armed forces chief Gen. Wiranto formally declined Golkar's offer of running as Habibie's vice-presidential candidate. The next day, by a tiny margin, the MPR voted to reject Habibie's accountability speech - in effect a vote of no-confidence.

A few hours later, in the early morning hours of Oct. 20, Habibie chose to withdraw from the race. "I have done everything within my capabilities, but even that was not enough," he told reporters gathered at his home. Asked if he was disappointed, he put on a brave face: "Not disappointing. This is reality. Why be disappointed?"

Clipped Wings

Indonesia's new president will be nowhere as powerful as Suharto and Sukarno were. The MPR has passed amendments to 10 articles in the 1945 Constitution that deal directly with the powers of the presidency - the start of a process of subjecting the executive to far more checks and balances and giving the legislature more authority. Key changes:

• Limit presidential and vice-presidential tenure to two five-year terms (Sukarno was in power for over two decades, Suharto for over three).

• Change the president's power to make statutes "in agreement with" parliament to his being entitled to propose draft statutes to the DPR. In other words, make explicit that the power to pass laws rests with parliament, not with the president.

• Give the DPR the power to vet diplomatic representatives, and take from the president the absolute right to reduce sentences, grant amnesties and restore rights (which would be done in conjunction with the Supreme Court as well as parliament).


The possibility of the accountability speech being rejected - and its potential ramifications on Habibie's political future - had been widely discussed beforehand, but Golkar was still thrown into turmoil when it happened. Golkar quickly put forward Tandjung as Habibie's replacement, but the party was in revolt. Habibie's supporters considered Tandjung a traitor and his candidacy sputtered. Yusril Ihza Mahendra of the minor Crescent Star Party volunteered his name, but backed down just as quickly.

That left just Megawati and Wahid. Ironically, Megawati in a way needed Habibie. In a three-way race, she might have benefited from the opposing votes being divided among two Islam-linked candidates. Instead, she faced just one rival around whom the forces opposed to her could unite. Rais also did his part to deny Megawati victory. He convinced some 50 members of Golkar's anti-Habibie faction that Megawati was unacceptable because she was a woman. He also persuaded Mahendra to pull out of the race, so as not to split the anti-Megawati vote. In the face of such opposition, Megawati paid the price for acting more like a Javanese princess than a Jakarta powerbroker.

Now that Indonesia has finally chosen its president, its long-suffering citizens must ask: Can Wahid lead? A critic of Suharto (who still campaigned for Golkar in 1997) and a longtime friend of Megawati (who ranked her "zero" as a politician), Wahid has shown himself to be a shrewd strategist. But his record as a manager even within the Nahdlatul Ulama is spotty. There are questions over his health - his eyesight has been restored in one eye but not the other, and he has just recovered from a stroke he suffered in January 1998. And his presidential powers are being eroded, with the MPR introducing constitutional amendments boosting the power of the legislative body at the expense of the executive.

Quite aside from those questions, the father of four faces numerous challenges ahead. First Wahid and Megawati must form a viable government. Wahid will need all his politicking and mediating skills to balance the competing interests. Other tasks include dealing with the military, assuaging restive provinces, battling corruption and reviving the economy. In his inauguration speech, while Wahid vowed to preserve national unity and to make Indonesia prosperous, he was short on specifics. But he did acknowledge that he faced "a heavy task."

Shortly after his withdrawal from the presidential race, Habibie was asked by Asiaweek what kind of advice he had for the next president. His reply: "He has to be prepared to work very hard around the clock." And for Wahid, the clock has just started to tick.

With additional reporting by Dewi Loveard/Jakarta

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