With political intuition par excellence and the escape artistry of a Houdini, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid has turned what looked like defeat into a victory for his 10-month presidency - and this week he chooses for the first time his own Cabinet, considered the most powerful institution in Indonesia.
Over the weekend a steady stream of party leaders, former Cabinet ministers, bankers, industry chiefs, and legal advisers has been driving through the gates of Merdeka Palace - seeking a place in the Cabinet. Control of ministry positions is seen as a chief spoil of politics, the place where political parties exert influence and control national assets.
But less than two weeks ago, Mr. Wahid looked weak, a spent force who would have little part in the country's day-to-day internal affairs. In a crucial legislative review, many of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) members jeered and called for his resignation. At one point, he fell asleep during a reading of his own speech. On Aug. 9, looking like a groggy political pinball, wearing a black fez or peci, he gave the daily job of running Indonesia to Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri.
Yet by patient and clever compromise, Wahid not only weathered the storm, but the nearly blind Muslim cleric, a secular visionary and intellectual, has confounded expectations by consolidating power.
The man whose party was a fourth-place finisher in national elections last fall now bids adieu to a set of bickering ministers foisted on him in last October's election horse-trading - some of whom last month drafted destructive criticisms of the Wahid government they served.
Wahid's comeback began when he sheathed a sword-of-Damocles amendment proposal that would allow for his quick impeachment next fall. He acquiesced to a law allowing 38 military party members in the MPR until 2009 instead of 2004. He downplayed Mrs. Megawati's new role and blocked attempts to spell out her powers until later this month. He then endeared himself to the MPR in a folksy address, doing impersonations, and drawing laughs and applause, not jeers.
The MPR is the most powerful legislative body in Indonesia, consisting of 500 elected members of parliament plus 200 appointed members. Once held every five years, the now-annual meeting will make adjustments to a Constitution as the country undergoes transition from 30 years of autocratic rule that allowed little dissent.
Wahid will streamline the Cabinet from about 35 to 25 members, operating through the four-person team of Wahid, Megawati, and two coordinating ministers - one for politics and security, and one for economy and finance. "Indonesians are not used to 'win-win' political solutions," says a local journalist. "But maybe it is time we get something like that."
Insiders say the political-security coordinator will be Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a widely respected former lieutenant general. Such a figure is considered crucial to Wahid, who needs military ties to continue reforms of the Army and restrain military adventurism in regions where separatism and ethnic strife threaten stability.
The other coordinator is expected to be Indonesian ambassador to the US, Dorojatun Kuntjorojakti, an economist and diplomat, someone considered willing to take on the stultifying layers of corruption.
There are, however, two important losers in the MPR session that ended Friday. The first group is two Muslim revival parties that want to formally reinstitute a "Islamic identity" to the majority Muslim country. They advocated a return to the original 1945 draft constitution that required Muslims to practice sharia, or Islamic holy law. In 1945, the words were withdrawn from the constitution after representatives from non-Muslim regions threatened to withdraw from Indonesia. The MPR has shelved the plan for a year.
The second group is human rights activists and parties that want the military held accountable for a history of abuses. On Friday, the MPR passed a law that would prevent the creation of special courts and investigations into past abuses. It would provide amnesty for past military excesses, including alleged abuses overseen by former Army chief General Wiranto in East Timor last summer.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society