As Indonesia's highest legislative body opened an 11-day session yesterday to debate constitutional reform and assess the progress of the nation's young democracy, President Abdurrahman Wahid and his aides were struggling on the sidelines to help him hang on to the powers of his office.
Though the People's Consultative Assembly, or MPR, elected Mr. Wahid and has the power to replace him, the leaders of the increasingly impatient legislature have promised he will survive. In political terms, that could end up being worse than an ouster.
The 700-member MPR is expected to use the next week to examine the president's failings in excruciating detail, delivering a public humiliation that could severely damage his credibility. Analysts expect that Wahid will be left with his title, but will wield less real power.
"Wahid is scraping for support. If he plows through the MPR with supreme overconfidence and he doesn't yield some power, the next round won't be an accommodation, but a removal,'' says Jeffrey Winters, a political scientist from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who's tracking the MPR. "It's no longer a question of if, but when his position erodes further."
A substantially weakened presidency has disturbing implications, particularly in the precedent it sets for Wahid's successor, whoever that may be. This nation of 215 million - whose geographic spread equals the distance from London to Baghdad - has never been in greater need of strong leadership.
Central control everywhere from Sumatra in the west to Papua in the east has faltered, and nothing has filled the gap. The national military and police have increasingly engaged in criminal activity to fund their operations. Efforts at reform have been stymied so far. Last week, Wahid bowed to military hard-liners by allowing Maj. Gen. Agus Wirahadikusumah, one of the military's true reformers and an ally of the president's, to be removed from a key Army post.
"Symptoms of national disintegration have welled up from primordial social conflicts,'' Wahid said in his speech, which was read for him by an aide. "Our nation, which is very complex and filled with the roots of conflict, does not yet have the institutions ... to resolve them." Wahid also apologized for his shortcomings and pleaded for more time. "Please have faith in us. I'm learning from the failings of the past 10 months and can make many improvements."
the power base of Wahid, an Islamic scholar, lies with the world's largest Islamic social organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama, a largely rural group founded by his grandfather. Despite his religious ties, he is well known for promoting harmony and reconciliation and was seen as being acceptable to a wide range of Indonesians when he was elected president. But having moral authority has not counted for very much in the face of problems that need hands-on solutions.
One problem is that Wahid is the first Indonesian executive to deal with anything more than a rubber-stamp parliament since the nation's first president, Sukarno, did away with democracy in 1959. Until this year, the MPR has only met once every five years to elect the president. Now, it will hold annual meetings to review the leader's performance.
"Wahid's true legacy could end up being a complete reinvention of the relationship between the executive and parliament,'' says a diplomat in Jakarta.
The MPR meets at a volatile time. A bomb explosion at the Filipino ambassador's house last week, followed by an explosion at a key government oil refinery yesterday that officials allege was sabotage, has added to a sense of fear around the MPR. The military has put about 30,000 troops on Jakarta's streets for the session.
But on the first day of the assembly, there were no disturbances in Jakarta. The real fireworks promise to be in parliament. The loose coalition that put Wahid in power has been coming apart for months under the pressure of Indonesia's deepening economic and political problems coupled with Wahid's own erratic, and at times arrogant, personal style. His recent description of parliament as a "kindergarten" did little to win him support from the legislators.
His near total blindness and tendency to fall asleep in Cabinet meetings has contributed to the feeling that he is not up to the daunting list of challenges - ranging from a defiant military leadership to anarchy in the Maluku provinces to the ailing economy. Close associates have also been embroiled in money scandals that have damaged Wahid's previously squeaky-clean reputation.
Indeed, Wahid appears to recognize holding power is going to require him to take a step back from day-to-day administration - or at least create the impression that he's doing that. Wahid, aides say, is considering the creation of a "first minister'' post that will run Cabinet meetings and look after the day-to-day affairs of government. That would be part of a broader Cabinet reshuffle that would see the number of posts cut to 25 from 35.
Wahid would then focus on foreign policy - which essentially boils down to projecting a positive image of Indonesia abroad. The president has traveled at least once a month, on average, since taking power. "It's the international stage that he loves best anyway," says Northwestern's Mr. Winters.
Wahid's plan is to appoint Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the current minister of mines and energy and a retired general, to the job. But there is considerable resistance to the idea, particularly from Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Her supporters, whose Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P) has the most seats in parliament, feel the plan would push her further away from power. The usually mild-mannered daughter of Sukarno reportedly is furious at what she feels have been efforts to sideline her. Three months ago, Wahid fired Laksamana Sukardi, a key aide and close associate of Megawati's, from the Cabinet, making unsubstantiated corruption allegations against Mr. Sukardi in the process.
Megawati was conspicuously absent from Wahid's 60th birthday party last week. If his grip continues to slip in the coming year, Megawati could well be in Wahid's chair by next August. But if the powers of the presidency itself continue to slide, she may not want it.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society