... and, in Indonesia, a leader who left all wondering

Wahid vacated the presidential palace yesterday to visit the United States.

He liked to listen to classical music, discuss literature, and meditate at the graves of his ancestors in search of spiritual inspiration.

Abdurrahman Wahid, the ousted president of Indonesia, appears to have possessed all the characteristics of a Renaissance man - and few of those needed to run a sprawling, troubled nation.

As Mr. Wahid left the presidential palace yesterday for the US - three days after lawmakers revoked his powers and gave his job to his vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri - snapshots of a failed presidency have come into focus. Some of them were rarely seen before - like the tottering Wahid, sporting shorts and an uncommonly capless head, led by his daughter and a close aide to the steps of the palace for a late-night wave to his remaining supporters.

Together, the last days of Wahid's tenure form a telling tale of what caused the downfall of the first president put in office by Indonesia's newfangled democracy. The broader picture that emerges - beyond the all-powerful military and lack of democratic institutions - is one that could serve as a lesson for leaders in how not to rule a country, not just for Mrs. Megawati, but for the region and the world at large.

Six months ago, for example, Joseph Estrada was ejected from the presidential seat in the Philippines primarily for his inept leadership and playboy antics, not to mention enormous graft allegations. In Japan, Yoshiro Mori was forced from office in April, when he appeared out of touch and unable to govern effectively, suggesting an increased public demand for accountability in many countries across Asia.

"[Wahid] was much too much the intellectual," says Donald K. Emmerson, an Indonesia scholar who held frequent meetings with the president.

When Wahid met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the UN Millennial Summit in 2000, for example, Wahid wanted to discuss Russian literature. Mr. Putin didn't respond to any of Wahid's literary questions. But when Wahid asked him about fancy fighter planes, Putin responded that he'd send a brochure. Wahid's daughter and aide, Yena, told Wahid's biographer: "That's what happens when a man who loves great literature tries to talk to an arms dealer."

"[Wahid wanted] to spend the time comparing different conductors of the world's best orchestras. It was therapy for him," says Professor Emmerson. I would want to talk themes, and he was interested in personalities. His image of others was dependent on who whispered in his ear last."

Many here agree that Wahid's downfall started about a year ago, when he began firing senior officials - two ministers and the national police chief - possibly acting on inaccurate information from confidantes. The firings seemed arbitrary and temperamental.

"That's when he lost his credibility," says Hadi Soesastro, the executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies here. "From then on, people began to see that he is just not fit to rule. There was no loyalty whatsoever from his subordinates, because no one felt secure enough to work under him."

One of those who was dismissed, he says, without any apparent cause, is Dharmawan Ronodipuro, Wahid's foreign press spokesman until January.

Mr. Ronodipuro, in charge of damage control, says he was often exasperated when Wahid would make bizarre, contradictory statements - and sometimes tell outright lies. Just after having been briefed on the dismal state of the economy, for example, the president might say exports were up. He used weekly prayers on Friday, the Muslim holy day, to drop political bombshells. And when members of the youth movement of his own 40-million strong Muslim organization attacked the offices of a newspaper, he questioned why the paper had written such a poor story.

Sometimes he just had a knack for telling the wrong jokes in the wrong crowd.

In one of the more infamous incidents, Wahid told some ministers meeting in his office that Megawati, then vice president, was having a torrid sexual affair with her bodyguard. "We were all quite embarrassed. We were trying to find some way to tell him to shut up," says Ronodipuro.

Moreover, Wahid often disdained those he found less astute then himself. "He thinks of himself as being intellectually superior," adds Ronodipuro. "So if he's with someone, and he feels they're not on the same level, he can be dismissive." Such shortcomings perhaps made him ineffective, but far from sinister.

"It's rather sad, really," muses Wahid's former aide. "He's a nice person, and he sort of reminds me of my father, a sort of plumpy old man, sitting there, scratching a toe, eating peanuts."

He also points out, as do many Indonesians, the great challenges of being a head of state who cannot read reports prepared by his staff. "If it wasn't presented in an animated way, he'd get bored and start making jokes," recalls Ronodipuro.

Wahid's blindness, following a second stroke in 1998, left him vulnerable to the interpretations of advisers, many of them family members, who may have been softening or skewing reality.

Wahid's daughter Yeni - whose role as a sort of spokeswoman and first lady for the president has taken on increased importance in recent days as Wahid suffered through what one person close to the family called a "state of shock" over his removal from office - says that the use of Wahid's blindness by his critics was the thing that bothered him most.

"The most disappointing thing when he was in power is that his political opponents scolded him based on his physical challenge," Yeni, her head draped with a gossamer black Islamic scarf, told reporters this week. "Our father might not be able to see, but he did not ask to be blind."

She also says her father doesn't think his career is over, sharing a line from a mystic dream he had this week: "As in a sentence, this is a comma."

Though most here seem to treat Wahid as a has-been, history may remember Wahid differently.

His biographer, Greg Barton, says that Wahid has been widely misunderstood. Dr. Barton, an Australian academic who has been living in the presidential palace for about six of Wahid's 21 months in office, says that Yeni, for example, never softened the news for him. Rather, she served as an essential chief of staff because Indonesia's extraordinarily weak office of the presidency offered no such role.

Aides, he said, couldn't steer him in the direction of building support, which he needed from the start: Wahid had won only 11 percent in the 1999 election, compared to Megawati's 35 percent, making him an odd choice by lawmakers for president.

Barton argues that unless the country reforms its political system and allows for a stronger office of the president, these situations will continue.

But after Wahid's last-ditch efforts to declare a state of emergency - an attempt to suspend the parliament and turn Indonesia back into the police state it was for decades - that looks unlikely.

"There were guys gunning for him since the beginning of his term, but you can't dismiss the fact that he could have performed better," says Barton, interviewed at the lush grounds of the presidential palace yesterday.

Endless streams of well-wishers filed in to bid him farewell. Wahid allowed a few journalists in for a last chat, and ended, as usual, by telling jokes.

"His fundamental mistake is that all along he didn't recognize the importance of political capital," says Barton. "He was too reliant on well-meaning amateurs."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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