O N L I N E E X C L U S I V E
Q&A with Amien Rais
"The choice must not be between Islam and secular, but between those who are willing to stick to their reformist ideals and those who are hesitating"
October 14, 1999
Web posted at 6 a.m. Hong Kong time, 6 p.m. EDT
Amien Rais, one of Indonesia's leading Moslem intellectuals, the head of the minority National Mandate Party (PAN) and an outspoken critic of former President Suharto, was elected chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly Oct. 3. He took time out from the dozens of interest groups waiting outside his plush new office in the Parliament Building to speak with TIME's Jason Tedjuksumana.
TIME: After being on the outside for so long, how does it feel to be at the helm of Indonesia's highest legislative body?
Rais: I have to try to know the real message of the people. Now I am on the inside, I have concrete means to realize some of the aspirations of the people. I do not want to be dominated by protocol or rules. I want to be always among the people.
TIME: Are you now indebted to Golkar since it helped elect you as chairman? What compromises were made?
Rais: PAN has only 34 seats in the Assembly, and in the election for chairman I got 305 votes, so of course votes came from Golkar. But that does not mean I must feel morally or politically in debt to Golkar. In the eyes of Golkar I was still better than my competitor. However, I have to be honest that without the Golkar votes I would not have reached this position.
TIME: Is the presidential election boiling down to Islamic vs. secular politics?
Rais: In the beginning it was pro-reform vs. pro-status quo, but that dividing line does not exist any longer. The choice must not be between Islam and secular, but between those who are willing to stick to their reformist ideals and those who are hesitating.
TIME: Is popular opposition candidate Megawati Sukarnoputri, who heads the Indonesian Democratic Party Perjuanguan ("Struggle") faction of the center-left (PDI), reaching out to other parties?
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Rais: Not yet. It's very unfortunate. As a matter of fact, if Megawati had reached out from the beginning, she would have been far ahead in this competition. She was so silent and even in hiding. All she had to do was communicate with other leaders. If there was mutual trust, there would be no handicap in reaching the presidency.
TIME: How will you direct your party to vote?
Rais: I will instruct members of PAN to stick to the original idea. We are committed to elect Gus Dur [Islamic leader Abdurrahman Wahid] as the next president. He is half-blind, but he is a much better choice.
TIME: Which groups will get together to make this possible?
Rais: So far only the reformasi faction has officially proclaimed its support for Gus Dur. PKB [the Muslim-oriented National Awakening Party] is still hesitating, and I don't know why. His candidacy will be promising if PKB wholeheartedly supports him. If not, I don't know how he can expect support from others.
TIME: Can someone handicapped lead Indonesia during these difficult times?
Rais: Why not? Roosevelt was in a wheelchair for his last three or four years, and a former president of the Dominican Republic was blind. I don't think his blindness is a handicap. Gus Dur has a clear mind and a good conscience, so if he is advised by an effective cabinet I think he can do it.
TIME: And vice president?
Rais: It should be someone from PDI-P. We have to be fair. If Gus Dur becomes president, the vice presidency should go to PDI-P.
TIME: Do you still have political ambitions?
Rais: Not at all. I am categorically not interested in entering the presidential race.
TIME: Do you prefer a secret or an open ballot?
Rais: I think secret is better because too many members of the Assembly have been threatened that if they do not choose a certain candidate they will be killed.
TIME: Should former president Suharto be tried?
Rais: I think Suharto is finished. After suffering two strokes, he has been forgotten by the people. Of course the students still remember him and feel he must be brought to court. But he is sick and no longer in control.
TIME: How are current President B.J. Habibie's chances?
Rais: Less than 50-50.
TIME: If he is not fully backed by Golkar, where will he get his support?
Rais: He will get support from nowhere.
TIME: How about the military?
Rais: They are on the sidelines and waiting for the strongest wind. If PDI-P looks the strongest, that's where they will move. If it looks as if Golkar is winning, they could swing to Golkar. But it would be better if they did not join the election, because the military is the backbone of our defense and security and should be above all groups in society.
TIME: You have long been a critic of the military's dual function, in both defense and politics. How have they received you as the head of the country's highest body?
Rais: To my surprise, even their leaders have adjusted themselves to the new situation. Now, I can talk to [armed forces chief] Wiranto and his colleagues freely and friendly. There is no more psychological handicap.
TIME: How about Wiranto's chances as vice president?
Rais: The possibility is there, but I think the students will be against that kind of deal, and many parties cannot accept a military leader as vice president. But I don't know if its essentially unacceptable or still open-ended.
TIME: Will the voting be one-man, one-vote or by consensus?
Rais: One-man, one-vote.
TIME: Will there be violence if Megawati is defeated?
Rais: It depends on Megawati's group, but they still have ample time. The only way out is if they can reach out to me, Golkar's Akbar Tandjung, Gus Dur, the military and other politicians, so our differences are not antagonistic. But if we look at predictions before the June elections, it took place without any significant disturbances. And before the opening of the Assembly session many feared there would be demonstrations, but they have not happened.
TIME: What about the millions who thought they were voting for Mega as president? Do they understand that the system may not allow this to happen?
Rais: The interesting aspect is that almost all of our TV stations are covering the ABCs of the election, even in villages in the most remote areas. They can follow the day-to-day developments. They can understand what is going on.
TIME: Could Megawati be accepted by the Central Axis and other Moslem-oriented members?
Rais: Yes, but with one condition: Megawati must also accommodate their aspirations in the new power structure.
TIME: How? By appointing cabinet members?
Rais: I think so. It's as simple as that.
TIME: Will the role of the president and vice president be redefined?
Rais: According to our constitution, the vice presidency is symbolic until something happens to the president. Only then can the vice president take over. But we will make amendments, and probably the vice president will get some more authority.
TIME: How influential has money been in this process?
Rais: I don't know, but I haven't smelled any until now.
TIME: Will East Timor's independence be ratified?
Rais: Yes. I think it will be recognized officially by the end of the closing session as no longer part of Indonesia.
TIME: What effect will that have on the next government?
Rais: The next government will have to give wide-ranging autonomy to our outer provinces like Riau, Aceh and Irian Jaya.
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