Possible presidential ouster stirs cauldron in Indonesia

People here speak of President Abdurrahman Wahid as though his days in office are numbered, and the only question is how many remain.

But, beneath the confidence in some quarters that the man known as "Gus Dur" soon will be deposed, concern grows that a possible transfer of power to his presumed successor, Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, could bring tensions to a violent boil.

In the eyes of Wahid's critics, the president is stirring the pot, firing up his supporters in the Nahdlatul Ulama, ostensibly the world's largest Muslim organization, some of whom say they have formed cells of suicide militants "ready to die defending Gus Dur."

Wahid sympathizers say the politicians who are working to replace him are simply searching for a scapegoat.

"Indonesia has an accumulation of 32 years of problems, and Wahid is being asked to solve it all in two years," says A. Effendy Choirie, a member of parliament from Wahid' s National Awakening Party. "The criticisms lodged against him are aimed more at destroying him and bringing him down than improving his performance."

Opposition to Wahid reached a crest in February, when a wide margin of legislators voted to censure him for his alleged role in two financial scandals. But even as efforts to impeach him gain momentum, those who want to see him ousted are concerned that millions of Indonesians who have an almost passionate reverence for Wahid will view any attempt to remove him from office as illegitimate - and as a war cry.

Last week, members of the 40-million strong NU began discussions on whether the anti-Wahid movement was committing bughot - an attempt to overthrow a government regarded as lawful under Islamic law - an act that would justify killing "offenders."

"Wahid is accepted by many groups because of his broad knowledge. He is a genius," says Mr. Choirie, speaking of his mentor. "But he has been relentlessly defamed and criticized."

Especially in populous East Java, many have a visceral sense of fealty to Wahid, considering him to be virtually the equivalent of a living saint. With emotions running so deep, political analysts say even those anxious to depose Wahid know they must tread the impeachment path carefully, and with as much constitutional backing as possible.

Looking at their neighbors in the Philippines, where a troika of political, military, and Roman Catholic Church leaders legally drove Joseph Estrada from the presidential palace and swore in then-Vice President Gloria Arroyo in a single two-day period - many here hope that sticking to a legal process will deter an outbreak of violence.

"It has to be a soft landing for Wahid," says Juworno Sudarsono, a former defense minister and professor of international relations at the University of Indonesia. "We can go the slow track or the fast track, and the slow track would provide a firmer basis for the next president."

In late March, Wahid appeared in parliament to respond to the censure motion passed in February. Through a spokesman who read his response aloud, the blind cleric apologized for any "inappropriate behavior," but vowed to stay in power.

The parliament has until the end of April to reply to Wahid, and it is widely expected that its next volley will be a second censure. If parliament isn't satisfied with Wahid's answer, it can summon a special session of the 700-member People's Consultative Assembly, which has the power to remove the president from office.

Though conservative estimates place the time frame for that around August, other politicians have been trying to speed up the process, fearful that Indonesia's economy will only slide further in the interim. "This has been a waste of our time," says Abe Komaruddin of the Golkar party, "and we want him out of office."

But a perceived hastiness only makes Wahid's followers more suspicious. And with large numbers of pro- and anti-Wahid demonstrators facing off against each other, the possibility of unrest looms.

"Every act of mass mobilization has the ability to erupt into mass violence. If the politicians would try to understand the masses and not be in a rush to unseat Wahid, we could prevent these clashes," says Syamsuddin Haris, an expert on the NU and Wahid's supporters.

"By replacing the president tomorrow, it doesn't mean the new person would make it all better," adds the researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, Center for Political and Regional Studies. "Part of democracy is the abiding by the process that has been agreed on."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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