Playing-it-by-ear rule in Indonesia

In the absence of an alternative, Wahid remains the sprawling country's best hope for the future.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

An Islamic scholar, he loves the Rolling Stones and European soccer. An intellectual, he flunked out of colleges in Egypt and Iraq.

He is a former leader of the world's largest Muslim organization, yet he's more likely to quote Thomas Jefferson than the Koran.

He says he is committed to building democratic institutions, yet he inherited the post that gave him prominence. He promises transparency and accountability, yet disdains explaining his actions to the public.

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Put simply, President Adburrahman Wahid - most Indonesians familiarly call him Gus Dur - is hard to read. And four months into his administration, his eclectic ways are breeding a mixture of exasperation and admiration in his countrymen. "His style of leadership is unnerving," says Mohammad Sadli, a retired cabinet minister and economist.

Take Wednesday morning. Mr. Wahid shocked a group of Japanese businessmen by telling them police in Jakarta were on "red alert" against a planned "massive antigovernment demonstration," despite the absence of any large gatherings in this sprawling city of 10 million people. As panic spread through regional financial markets, Wahid aides contained the damage. One told reporters Wahid meant only that the police are "always on alert." "That's just Gus Dur," says Sofjan Wanandi, a local businessman and old friend of Wahid's, laughing about the incident a day later.

The success of Wahid and his unorthodox style is crucial, not just for Indonesia but for much of the region. US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said in January that Indonesia - home to 210 million people and vast reserves of oil, gas, and minerals - is the lynchpin of Southeast Asia's prosperity.

Wahid, a self-professed "dreamer," who often seems asleep in meetings and admits to being bored by the details of business and government, faces challenges that stretch from one end of the archipelago to the other. In Aceh, an independence war is being fought; in Jakarta, the capital, democratic institutions are only taking root after 40 years of authoritarian rule; and the economy is just emerging from its deepest crisis in a generation.

Indonesians seem evenly split over whether Wahid is a brilliant tactician - using his apparent contradictions to keep his opponents off-balance - or an inveterate prankster who is limiting his own effectiveness. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Wahid has no national power base of his own and has to rely on guile to hold power in Indonesia's quasi-parliamentary system. But friends and family members alike describe him as a puckish man who sometimes says whatever comes to his mind.

"He has some basic principles - religion out of politics and democracy," says Mr. Sadli. "For the rest, I think he just makes it up as he goes along."

It's a sentiment that's growing and could have disturbing implications for his new government. Officials say he's taking more advice from friends and family members - two of his four daughters are close aides - than from some of his ministers. The style bears similarities to Suharto, who ruled for more than 30 years. "It's beginning to look like a Javanese court," says a Western diplomat.

"The government doesn't seem committed to addressing the human rights abuses in Aceh," says Rosita Noer, a member of the government-sponsored commission investigating abuses in the province. "They are not going to win back the people...if that doesn't change."

"He deals with problems in an ad hoc manner," says Hidayat Jati, a political analyst and business consultant. "That's not the way to build a democracy."

Wahid's task is daunting enough as it is. But he can't seem to resist heightening the drama. He "enjoys the uproar created by a controversial statement," says Marcus Mietzner, a political scientist and fellow at The Australian National University in Canberra.

Consider the February showdown between the frail and nearly blind Wahid and the strapping General Wiranto, since suspended from his post as security minister. Wiranto stands accused of having a hand in the military's premeditated rampage in East Timor, when he was still armed forces chief.

While on a European and Asian tour - and with rumors swirling Wiranto might seize control - Wahid told reporters he wanted Wiranto out of his cabinet. Wiranto said he wouldn't go until notified directly by Wahid.

A trip Wahid had intended as a showcase for investors became dominated by questions about a possible coup, drawing confidence away from his government. A defiant Wiranto attended cabinet meetings; Wahid hinted that his generals were holding secret meetings to conspire against him.

The president arrived home Feb. 13, met with Wiranto, and announced the four-star general could keep his job. A few hours later, Wahid suspended Wiranto from his cabinet. "I don't know what he wants," complained a bewildered aide. To top it off, the president denied there was a flip-flop.

Wiranto's dismissal was hailed as a major victory for Wahid and praise poured in from around the world. Admirers called his vacillation an act of genius that confused his opponent.

To many, it was a puzzling and disturbing episode. Military analysts and people close to Wahid say there was no conspiracy to topple him. Wiranto did not have the support to hold a coup, and it didn't appear he had the will.

"Gus Dur could have fired Wiranto whenever he wanted to," says a Western diplomat in Jakarta. "Instead he dragged it out, and built Wiranto up into a bigger threat than he ever really was."

The natural question then, is why? People who have followed Wahid closely since 1984, when he was named the chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the roughly 35-million member Muslim association founded by his grandfather, say it's more a matter of personality than politics.

Born in a small town in East Java, he comes from a long line of Muslim intellectuals. His grandfather and his father have major streets in the capital named after them. People that know Wahid say the uncritical veneration the family receives from the NU's rank and file fostered a climate where Wahid could say what he liked, without consequences. Now that he's president, he's having trouble kicking the habit.

"His eccentric character is ... unlikely to change. He will continue to create controversies," says Mr. Mietzner.

Yet for his all contradictions, Wahid remains Indonesia's best hope for the future - the only national figure the diverse political parties could agree on in last year's parliamentary election.

It's his trump card for holding on to power. As Mietzner explains, Wahid "will rely more and more on the major factor that brought him into office: the absence of an alternative."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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