Indonesia's president faces impeachment

Legislators say Wahid will soon be replaced by Megawati Sukarnoputri.

The constellation of elite interests that surprisingly brought the frail Abdurrahman Wahid the Indonesian presidency in 1999 has fallen apart under the strain of his refusal to answer corruption charges.

Legislators say it's now only a matter of time before constitutional means are found to replace Mr. Wahid with his vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Even as 100,000 Wahid supporters took to the streets of Surabaya, the president's East Java stronghold, legislators said they would not be deterred.

"He has no way out," says Pramono Anung, a senior legislator in Mrs. Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), which has the most seats in parliament.

"It should be devastatingly clear by now that if he doesn't resign, he will be impeached," said legislator Amien Rais, chairman of the upper house of parliament.

Parliament overwhelmingly voted to censure Wahid for his alleged involvement in two financial scandals last week. The scandals involve a $2 million donation from the Sultan of Brunei and the siphoning of about $3 million from a state food body called Bulog. Indonesians refer to the scandals as Bulogate and Bruneigate.

"Bruneigate and Bulogate are a door opening onto his complete failure to address every facet of national life," says Mr. Rais, who helped cobble together the coalition of Muslim parties that provided a crucial swing vote when Wahid won the presidency.

Though the mechanisms by which he could be impeached aren't clear, representatives of the largest political parties say they expect to call a special session of the upper house (MPR) within four months to vote on his removal, which would make Megawati the president.

If Southeast Asian history is anything to go by, Wahid's ouster could signal a deepening of Indonesia's era of political turmoil, rather than a new calm.

Indeed, the longer this drags on, the worse the specter of political violence will grow, particularly involving a thuggish core of Wahid supporters who call themselves Banser.

These mostly young men, from the Nahdlatul Ulama, the 40 million-member Muslim organization Wahid headed before becoming president, have been threatening mass destruction if Wahid falls. Though he has said he opposes violence, Wahid has not strongly condemned the threats. In a press conference yesterday he called the violence by his supporters "the price we have to pay for the continuing process of democracy."

Going from a military-backed dictatorship to democracy is almost always shaky, as generals are nudged from politics, and the leaders and electorate learn about their rights and responsibilities. Until the military is out of politics, which it isn't, and the electorate gains more sophistication, a slow process, any presidency is likely to be weak.

Thailand went through an average of one government every two years between 1973, when the military dictatorship fell, and 1991, when it had its last coup. Thai democracy finally appears to be on solid ground.

"Transitions aren't smooth," says Harold Crouch, a Southeast Asia specialist working for the International Crisis Group. "Thailand looks pretty good now, but if you imagine that Indonesia is where Thailand was in 1973, we're in for a very volatile period."

Though Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos fell in 1986, the country is still struggling. Last month, that nation's political elite engineered a soft coup that brought Vice President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to power over Joseph Estrada, the ex-movie star beloved by the poor.

The similarities between the Philippines and the unfolding situation in Jakarta aren't just superficial. Though profoundly different men, both Mr. Estrada and Wahid are unlikely presidents who were thrown into the job by a still-maturing political process.

Neither man has any management experience, nor any expressed interest in the day-to-day affairs of government. And both failed to recognize the weaknesses of their political position.

Indeed, political analysts like Mr. Crouch say both men are examples of the bad leadership choices nations have to make when emerging from authoritarianism. Dictators like Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for 32 years until 1998, hold power by either eliminating potential rivals or steering them away from politics.

Wahid, an icon of the democracy movement in the Suharto years, delivered a lesson in political immaturity earlier this month when, aides and cabinet members say, he sounded out the military about dissolving parliament and declaring a state of emergency to head off the corruption investigation.

The generals, according to members of Wahid's Cabinet, told him no.

Legislators and aides say Wahid's grip on power is threatened less by the allegations of financial impropriety than by his own shabby treatment of the rest of the political establishment - and his failure to deal with the pressing issues of separatism, a falling currency, and the massive corruption of the past.

The mercurial Wahid alienated his coalition partners with a combination of insults and snubs. Last year, he referred to parliament as a "kindergarten."

The relationship has been downhill since. "When Megawati, or Amien, or any of these other leaders go to meet him, he insults them," says a senior member of Megawati's party.

The military has promised there will be no coup, but it used its 32 appointed seats in parliament to vote for censure - and has said it is not opposed to a constitutional removal.

Though the military brass has been careful to express its support for the Constitution and the office of the presidency, it has not said anything in defense of the president personally.

Senior generals are more comfortable with Megawati, both personally and with her politics. She's indicated that as president she would take an ultranationalist line that would give the Army a free hand to deal with separatism and slow human rights investigations begun under Wahid.

Indonesia's president is elected by the upper house of parliament. Wahid surprisingly snatched victory in 1999 despite his National Awakening Party only holding 9 percent of the seats in parliament. He did so because Megawati failed to cultivate a coalition of her own - and because of the ambivalence many Muslim parties like Rais's National Mandate Party felt about a woman president.

Rais says that isn't an obstacle now. "The Ulemas [Muslim scholars] say it's OK to have a woman president, if it's an emergency. They can be quite flexible."

Megawati's aides say she's aware of the weak position her own government could be in after setting a precedent for mid-term removals, and relying on the support of politicians like Rais, once among her strongest enemies and critics. She will also need the help of Golkar - the old party of Suharto, which remains the second largest party in parliament.

To limit the risk of becoming beholden to those interests, they say she's determined to stick to the Constitution, rather than reach for the quick fix the Philippines elite did. That points to a long, messy process unless Wahid chooses to resign - something he's repeatedly vowed not to do.

"We're hoping to convince him to save his own reputation, and to limit the damage done to the institution of the presidency," says Pramono. "But it seems he wants to hunker down in the palace until 2004," when his term is set to expire.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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