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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

Battle For Balance
Wahid's mediation allowed the Big Three to bridge basic differences
By JOSE MANUEL TESORO Jakarta


About the only common goal among Megawati (left), Wahid (center) and Rais (right) was to change the status quo bequeathed by strongman Suharto
Kemal Jufri for Asiaweek
The main organizing principle of Indonesian politics is not consensus, perhaps not even compromise. It is balance. The stability of the vast nation has always depended on achieving the right equilibrium among its many religions, ethnic groups and even ideologies. Over three decades, Suharto had mastered that essential art. He made himself the fulcrum between civilians and soldiers, Christians and Muslims, indigenous Indonesians and ethnic Chinese. When he fell from power, the balance was shattered. Its components were left to battle each other.

Post-Suharto Indonesia has been searching for a new equilibrium. Twice before, the country had produced leaders capable of fixing each political element in its place, and cheat chaos. Who would now play the role of Sukarno or Suharto? Against the discredited state and the questionable legitimacy of President B.J. Habibie, there was only a motley group of reformist leaders, none of whom seemed able to gather the pieces of the nation back together. In fact, they seemed to represent the pieces: Megawati Sukarnoputri, heir to her father Sukarno's secular nationalism; Abdurrahman Wahid, revered leader of traditional Islam; and Amien Rais, modernist Muslim intellectual and urban reform hero.

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Each had imperfections. Megawati was a housewife-turned-reluctant politician, and Wahid an erratic, half-blind cleric. Rais was an ambitious professor with conflicting loyalties. The best hope was that the three could work together, showing the whole was greater than the parts. But with the passage of time, the differences among them only grew greater. In the end, it took the wiliest of them to prepare to bridge the widening gap. It paid off for him - but will it for Indonesia?

The story of the leaders' tribulations began at Wahid's modest home in Ciganjur, South Jakarta, on Nov. 10, 1998. It was three days before the end of a special session of Indonesia's electoral college and upper house of the legislature, the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), called by Habibie to confirm his agenda. Visitors brought unusual news to Wahid, leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the influential Muslim mass organization with 30 million members. Some retired generals and former officials spoke of a possible coup. That helped push Gus Dur (as his followers know him) to declare that a long-planned meeting between himself and other reformist leaders must start that very afternoon. He would wait no longer.

His decision marked the end of a five-month effort by the student movement. The youth had played a role in forcing Suharto's May 1998 resignation; many among them were dismayed when his protégé Habibie ascended to the presidency. They were equally disappointed by popular leaders' inability to form a common front against what they saw as the remnants of the corrupt Suharto regime and the military establishment. "The country will fall apart if the leaders cannot unite," Widdi Aswindi of the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) recalls thinking.

Students hatched a plan to bring together four popular leaders to oppose Habibie. They were Megawati, Gus Dur, Rais and Java's last king, Sultan Hamengkubuwono X of Jogjakarta. But while some were close (Megawati and Gus Dur are old friends), others had antagonistic relationships, especially with Rais. Although the group he leads, the city-based, modernist Muhammadiyah, is older than NU and has almost as many members, the political scientist from Jogjakarta's Gadjah Mada University was considered an ambitious upstart. He and Gus Dur had clashed over political and religious issues; Megawati considered him sly and inconsistent. Hamengkubuwono noted that for two decades, he himself had fought Rais - and in his own kingdom.

Students soon understood that only Gus Dur could bring all of them to the same table. But he was recovering from a stroke earlier that year. As Habibie's November MPR special session approached, the students grew more desperate. Finally, with Gus Dur's decision on Nov. 10, their wish was granted. The other three leaders were called to Ciganjur.

The meeting began in Gus Dur's living room shortly after 3 p.m. Three student representatives demanded that the four leaders save Indonesia from Habibie, and declare a transitional government. "We wanted them to say, 'We are ready to lead,'" says the ITB's Widdi. But the students were disappointed. Habibie would probably fall within three months, they were told, so there was no need to do much of anything.

The split between the leaders and reform-minded students was a fundamental one. "The [leaders] wanted democracy in a more institutionalized manner, not through the street movement," says Fajrul Falaakh, a senior NU executive who moderated the meeting. Nonetheless, the encounter produced what became known as the Ciganjur Agreement. The four declared eight common goals: national unity, better representative institutions, decentralization, new parliamentary elections, reform in the interests of future generations, a halt to corruption, an end to military involvement in government, and the removal of the Islamic vigilantes Habibie's backers had deployed to guard the MPR special session. At last, Indonesia's desire for change had been given form. A common vision was born.

Yet the four leaders were far from a working political union, though that did not stop some of them from trying. On May 17, 1999, Megawati was launching her book Moves and Steps: Megawati Sukarnoputri in a Jakarta luxury hotel when an emissary brought her a draft document from her longtime ally, Gus Dur. It was a proposal for a united front among the parties Megawati, Gus Dur and Rais had founded to contest Indonesia's landmark parliamentary elections on June 7. The front would bring together her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Wahid's National Awakening Party (PKB) and Rais's National Mandate Party (PAN) under a single pro-reform umbrella. The idea, mooted by PAN, had been fine-tuned by Gus Dur's people. Still, Megawati was suspicious. She did not relish standing beside Rais in the elections.

Gus Dur's aide stressed that the proposal was not for a coalition, but for a common stand against Habibie and former ruling party Golkar, which would also contest the polls. Megawati slowly warmed to the idea, though she still seemed reluctant during a meeting with Wahid at her Jakarta home later that evening. Finally, Gus Dur told her: "Well, if you don't want to sign it, fine." She signed the accord, despite her own reservations.

The declaration, which became known as the Paso Communiqué, was read out after 3 a.m. at the home of PKB deputy leader Alwi Shihab on Paso Street, Jakarta. In it, PDI-P, PKB and PAN reiterated their commitment to obstruct the "status quo." It said: "We declare shared steps to continue reform and invite all components to create together a new, democratic Indonesia." The three parties' backers enthusiastically fashioned banners displaying the parties' colors, and began campaigning together. Everyone hoped the events would lead to a coalition and, ultimately, Habibie's defeat.

Unknown to either Megawati or Gus Dur, however, Rais had been discussing a similar anti-status quo front with two Muslim groupings, the United Development (PPP) and Justice (PK) parties. Three days after the Paso accord, PAN, PPP and PK signed their own agreement. As Megawati and Gus Dur saw it, Rais had brought uninvited visitors to the table, mixed political Islam with the pro-reform front, and brashly made PAN the link between the nationalist-traditional Islam wing of the reform movement, and the modernist Muslim one. Megawati turned to an adviser who had persuaded her to sign the Paso Communiqué: "See? What did I tell you?"

Yet Rais had a point. Indonesia had undergone sweeping social changes since the days of Megawati's father. Islam had strengthened, especially among the young, the middle class and in the cities. There was a generation of educated, self-confident, modernist Muslim leaders, of which Rais was a member. They were seeking to reconcile politics with piety. They also wanted change, as Islam had also been a victim of Suharto. Why should they be frozen out by the other reform forces? A split in the end would only benefit entrenched interests, such as Golkar and the military.

On July 7, a downcast Amien Rais left Jakarta and flew home to Jogjakarta. A month after the election booths had closed, returns were slowly coming in. PAN's vote tally was not even 8%. Rais was tired and discouraged. "PAN was a brave experiment," he said. In a burst of idealism, he had formed a party that attempted to marry middle-class intellectuals with his Muslim base. Now he was staring at decisive defeat. "We overestimated the people's willingness to vote for ideas rather than personalities," he said.

His relations with Megawati continued to sour. Rais made numerous approaches to her, yet he felt a distinct chill from her direction. Megawati's party had won 34% of the electorate. For her, the poll result was her mandate: that she would be president should no longer be in question.

She evaded the press, surfacing rarely to make a public comment. She met with other party leaders, but they received no commitments on any roles they might have if she formed the next government. In a July 23 article published by a Japanese newspaper, she asked: "The people have spoken clearly. Why do we have to return to the past?" That was much the same sentiment in her speech a few days later, declaring election victory. When reporters caught up with her during her tour of East Timor in August, she told them: "Is there a coalition in a presidential system? No."

But Megawati also had trouble within her own party. Since the forced fusion of Christian parties with Sukarno's old Indonesian National Party (PNI) during Suharto's 1973 streamlining of politics, the original PDI has had problems balancing its various wings. Those divisions Megawati brought with her when she split off to form her own party in 1996. The splits were reflected in the extended battle among cadres over who would be the party's MP candidates. PNI elements were sidelined, and the resulting list of legislators was heavy with Christian candidates - an extremely sensitive issue in a Muslim-majority country.

The widening rift between Megawati and Rais was not lost on Gus Dur. Nor was the gathering impression among pious Muslim voters that the PDI-P was dominated by non-Muslims. Besides the resurgence of the old nationalism-vs.-Islam conflict that had characterized Indonesian politics since Independence, there was another worrying development. Golkar, which had the second-largest bloc of votes, was wooing Megawati's PDI-P members. The conservative PDI-P had more in common with the broadly nationalist Golkar and the military than with Islamic forces. A Megawati government formed by the natural attraction among the PDI-P, Golkar and the army would likely exclude political Islam.

Despite his reputation for religious tolerance, Gus Dur also understood that if Islam continued to be marginalized in Indonesian politics, as it had under much of the Sukarno and Suharto eras, there would be trouble. He and Rais agreed that Islam had to have a role in the next government - if for different reasons. It is unclear who came up with the idea for a united bloc of the many Muslim parties, or that Gus Dur would be its presidential candidate. But by late June, Gus Dur and Rais were heavily into talks with other Muslim political leaders about forming what Rais later dubbed "the Center Axis." Such a bloc would force the PDI-P, Golkar and the military to include them in any new balance of power.

Participating in a united Muslim political movement was an extremely risky gambit for Gus Dur. It still is. Indonesian Islam is splintered, and so are the components of the Center Axis. The vehicle is as convenient for Muslim chauvinists as it is for players who see Islam as the new way to gain both political and economic power. What about the danger posed by Habibie and his allies, who in the past have had few qualms about mixing religion and politics in order to boost the president? A close Gus Dur adviser told Asiaweek in late June: "It's a risk we have to take." Wahid continued to back Megawati, but never closed the door to his own nomination as the Center Axis' presidential candidate. In private, he told people he was on Islam's side in order to protect Megawati.

Gus Dur's canny maneuvering between nationalist and Islamic forces meant that no matter who won as president, Megawati or himself, each side would be in the hands of moderate leaders who had long cooperated with each other. But the political reality is slightly different. Having denied Megawati the legislature and the presidency, Gus Dur's Islamic camp is poised to dominate the nation's institutions. Will it now deal the nationalists in? The answer will decide Indonesia's stability.

On Sept. 18, armed forces chief Gen. Wiranto summoned the leaders of all major parties to a meeting. The venue was to be his official residence in central Jakarta. But at Megawati's request, a more "neutral" locale was chosen: the Proclamation Museum. The choice turned out to be very symbolic. As the party chiefs spoke and vowed to avoid violence during the presidential election, they were watched from a far wall by the subjects of two portraits: Sukarno and his first vice president, Mohammed Hatta, a Muslim leader. Throughout Indonesia's long battle for reform since the fall of Suharto, the nationalist-Muslim cooperation shown by the country's Independence-era leaders had been a guiding model. Five decades later, it still seems the right balance. Making it work is now in the hands of those leaders' descendants.

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