Wahyu gives Wahid wiggle room

Critics of the Indonesian president cite his failures. Others say hiscredibility and right to rule are intact.

For Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia's first democratically elected president, the honeymoon is over. At least by the political standards of mere mortals.

But for many Indonesians, their quirky, loquacious, and unpredictable leader is not just exercising a political mandate to run Indonesia. Says one Indonesian diplomat: "You can find any number of people in Java" - the archipelago's culturally dominant island - "saying that he has a kind of divine right to rule."

So despite growing criticism of Mr. Wahid's administration, his perceived divine credibility is still very much intact. "I see him as both a spiritual leader and as a political leader," says Ahmad Jum'a, a junior at an Islamic boarding school in a Jakarta suburb. "If I see him as a spiritual man, then yes, I think he has wahyu," a Javanese term that implies a mystical understanding of God's will.

Western-educated Indonesians tend to explain wahyu in universal terms. "Presidents everywhere, including the US, need some mythical symbols to provide [a] degree of moral authority," says Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono.

In Indonesia, however, the role of concepts such as wahyu may go beyond the aura that attaches itself to leaders everywhere. Indonesia's former President Suharto was known for cultivating the idea that he was a Javanese king - often inscrutable but imbued with a right to rule.

To be sure, Suharto played power politics as well as anyone else able to stay in office for more than three decades, but letting people think he had wahyu was part of his strategy.

Wahid is no dictator. A Muslim cleric and intellectual who emerged as a compromise candidate for president at a national assembly last October, he has espoused religious tolerance and democratic values for decades. But although his presidency represents a milestone in Indonesia's transition toward democracy, Wahid has done nothing to dispel the idea that he too has Indonesia's version of a Chinese emperor's "mandate from heaven."

That may be because he needs all the help he can get. Wahid must remove Indonesia's military from politics, strengthen institutions that can sustain democracy in the world's fourth most-populous nation, and keep a diverse collection of islands and cultures from fragmenting. On top of all this, he needs to revive an economy still reeling from the East Asian financial and economic crisis that began in mid-1997.

Members of his Cabinet, such as Attorney General Marzuki Darusman, concede that wahyu and other mystical notions remain a part of Indonesia's politics. "The president still believes in that also, [so] it affects the way people look at him, because they know he believes in that," he says.

Another reason is that Wahid sometimes seems too good at the art of political maneuver. "The fact that he can overcome crises, one after the other, can only be explained away by attributing these extra, super powers.... That starts the whole chain of reason that there must be something more than his technical capacity or skill."

"I think these things are important," adds a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, about the role of wahyu. "These are things a lot of us miss when we are looking at the [Indonesian] rupiah," whose value has been falling recently amid doubts about Wahid's ability to run the economy. "He does seem to be judged by different rules."

To judge the president by conventional standards, he is faltering. Although he is making progress in removing the military from power and has scored successes in dealing with separatists in the province of Aceh, critics and politically influential students are finding more to complain about.

They accuse Wahid of ignoring the economy, being susceptible to some of the corruption, nepotism, and collusion that typified the old regime, and moving too slowly to bring Suharto to trial. Corruption in lower levels of government continues unabated, and Indonesia's emerging democracy is being tainted by instances of vote buying and "money politics."

Mr. Darusman and Mr. Sudarsono, in separate interviews, point out what Wahid is up against.

"This government is in dire straits in terms of budgetary constraints and is facing people who are politically and financially powerful outside the government," says Sudarsono. "They still exert what I would call residual power from the past ... [and] can influence the courts, the police, and the public prosecutor's office."

"The way the president sees it, Mr. Suharto and his people are still active ..." adds Darusman. "The moment we take action against Mr. Suharto then you see things happening in the regions," he says, referring to instances of violence and rioting in outlying areas, as well as in Jakarta, the capital.

"It's destabilizing, of course," Darusman continues, "but it's not as threatening as some of us think in the sense that it's not going to split up the country. But it certainly influences the political climate, the investment climate, the economic climate, and so on."

Sudarsono notes that Wahid's "humanitarian credentials" and his capacity to win over the Indonesian public are very strong. "Our big problem is to provide substance [with] that charisma ... so that we can relate that notion of humanitarian sympathy with the need to become ruthless in terms of state policy. Because when you are involved in governance, you have to choose.

"I think our difficulty with [Wahid] is that he's too nice to everyone. He wants to please everyone because he is a good, humane person."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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