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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 / February 25, 2000


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

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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.

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."