Indonesia moves toward unseating its president

After yesterday's subdued protests in support of Mr. Wahid, analysts say his days are numbered.

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President Abdurrahman Wahid's supporters were girding for yesterday's battle for more than a month. Supporters in his East Java stronghold formed self-styled "suicide squads" and threatened to use magic powers to take legislators hostage and stop impeachment proceedings.

Mr. Wahid told anyone who would listen that it would be "understandable" if they stormed parliament to stop it from voting to continue the impeachment process against him. At least one opposition leader took to wearing a bullet-proof vest in response.

But all was calm in Jakarta, with roughly 20,000 Wahid supporters on the streets, far fewer than the roughly 400,000 the president predicted would pour into the capital. A few thousand protesters huddled in the rain outside the gates of parliament, as speaker after speaker inside denounced the president.

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"Wahid has totally lost the trust of the people and the international community," says legislator Irwan Prayitno, who helps lead a caucus of Islamic parties that helped elect Wahid 17 months ago. It now appears his Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle has the most seats in parliament, will succeed him.

At press time, parliament had yet to vote on the issuing of a second censure, a mandatory part of the impeachment process. But leaders of nearly every political faction, with the exception of Mr. Wahid's National Awakening Party and the military, expressed support for the move.

Wahid's hole card in his evolving poker game with parliament was the threat of mass demonstrations. The events of the past two days have exposed the threat of mass action as a bluff and Wahid's presidency now appears helpless.

Parliament is using Wahid's alleged involvement in two financial scandals to get rid of a leader most legislators believe is too erratic for the country's good.

"The legislators were already angry at the way the president's party had tried to bully them into changing course. Now they smell blood,'' says political scientist Andi Mallarangeng, who helped draft Indonesia's electoral laws.

But Wahid has vowed not to step down. In a nationally televised Friday night speech - read for the blind and ailing president by spokesman Wimar Witoelar - Wahid described himself as "the glue that binds the nation" and asked for more time.

He is likely to get it. The convoluted impeachment process could drag on for as long as another four months. Analysts expect the already rickety government machine to grind to a halt at a time when the economy is veering close to collapse.

"We've created a situation where we have a lame-duck president. He can't lead because he doesn't have the support of the parliament," says Mr. Mallarangeng.

The International Monetary Fund signaled in Washington on Friday that aid would be suspended until Wahid is replaced or decisively defeats the impeachment effort. "No international support works if there isn't a minimum degree of political stability," IMF managing director Horst Kohler told reporters. "We need to know what is the basic order in this country in order to implement our strong commitment to work with Indonesia."

In his Friday speech, Wahid acknowledged economic failings, but suggested no one could do better. "Even if we were to change presidents 100 times a year, nothing would restore our economy quickly."

Wahid is an unlikely president. He is revered by the 17 million-plus members of the Nahdlatul Ulama - a Muslim social organization he led until 1999 - but has little support in broader Indonesian society.

Though his party only holds about 10 percent of the seats in parliament, which elects the president in the Indonesian system, he played on Islamic opposition to Mrs. Megawati's candidacy because of her gender. Indonesia's Muslim parties now say they would accept her.

For the past week, she has avoided the spotlight and refused comment on her desire for the presidency. Her reticence has justified one of Wahid's politically ill-advised jokes: That he and Megawati made a great team "Because I can't see, and she can't speak."

Still, she seems to be the only figure who can pull Indonesia out of its political stasis. "With Wahid there is no hope. With Megawati, there's some hope," says Mallarangeng. "Her big advantage is that she starts with 34 percent of the parliament - that's much stronger than Wahid."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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