Moderate Muslim with the power to unite Indonesia?

Indonesia's new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, is widely respected as a moral and religious leader. But he is is sometimes scorned for his unpredictable politics.

In the world's largest Muslim nation, Mr. Wahid heads an Islamic educational and social service organization that claims more than 35 million members. Wahid is known for espousing an inclusive and tolerant Islam, which suits the desire of many Indonesians to avoid any move toward an Islamic state. Ninety percent of Indonesia's 210 million people call themselves Muslims.

Wahid is nearly blind and has been ailing in recent years, raising serious concerns about his fitness for leadership. And he changes his mind a lot. "He's very brilliant, very intelligent," says Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a former Cabinet minister. "But he's always had this predispostion for instability - going from one position to another."

A close friend of Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose party won parliamentary elections held in June, Wahid was expected to be a powerbroker behind the scenes and shift support to her. Instead of being a kingmaker, he has turned out to be the king, Mr. Sarwono notes, in part because of strong support from Muslim parties in the People's Consultative Assembly.

Wahid's economic strategy is unclear, but he and other Islamic politicians have stressed the need to equalize the distribution of wealth in a country where East Asia's economic crisis has hit hardest of all, pushing many people from the threshold of the middle class back into poverty.

Wahid won widespread respect during the regime of former president Suharto for his moderate views and made some political analysts see him as a middle-of-the-road candidate who could unite all groups in the ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse archipelago nation.

At the same time, some reformists say he was too close to Mr. Suharto and his successor, former President B.J. Habibie. But Wahid's capacity to shift from one side another may have won him the support he needed yesterday to be elected president.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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