More than 100 serving and retired Indonesian generals gathered at a luncheon at army headquarters in the Jakarta over the weekend and held what political analysts say amounts to a vote of no confidence in the leadership of President Abudurrahman Wahid.
Senior politicians say Mr. Wahid called in Army Chief of Staff Endriatono Sutarto last week and asked him if the military would back a state of emergency and dissolution of parliament to help save his presidency from impeachment. When General Sutarto said "no," Wahid began to consider replacing him, the politicians say.
Wahid's request drew the oft-maligned armed forces into the public battle over his presidency, and it appeared they came down decisively on the side of popular Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri. To underline the point, the Army paraded armored cars near the presidential palace on Sunday.
The weekend's events cast the military in the unusual position of protector of democracy and moved Mrs. Megawati, eldest daughter of founding father Sukarno, one step closer to taking the reins of the world's fourth most populous country.
"Dragging the military back into politics will destroy democracy before it even has a chance to start," says Pramono Anung, deputy chairman of Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P). "There's only a very small chance that Wahid can survive now."
With the leaders of almost every Indonesian political party agreeing with that sentiment, the question in Jakarta is no longer will Wahid survive, but what will Megawati's presidency look like?
People who know her are predicting a chillier relationship with the United States and the West, even as her national popularity buys her government the sort of domestic credibility that Wahid has never been able to muster.
Out will go Wahid's strategy of appeasing separatism on the nation's fringes, and in will come military solutions that analysts say could drive up death tolls amid the separatist activity in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya. Megawati's cozy relationship with the Army will probably see the end of prosecutions of soldiers for abuses in the former Indonesian province of East Timor. "We're going to see a real backlash," complains one Wahid aide.
She is, after all, her father's daughter, and Sukarno's driving obsession was national unity. In addition to harshly dealing with separatism, senior PDI-P officials said that a Megawati government would slow a plan to devolve political power and finances to the regions, because of concern that the loss of central control is dangerous for the nation.
On the other side of the ledger, Wahid's mercurial leadership will be replaced by a more consistent style that has a better chance of getting results in this sprawling nation's tangle of economic and social problems.
Megawati's political inexperience was evident in her failure to use her 34 percent majority in the parliament, which chooses the president, to take the presidency in October 1999. After her party won the general election earlier that year, aides reported her excitedly discussing returning to the presidential palace she grew up in and redecorating her childhood bedroom.
Her failure to work on building a coalition enabled Wahid, whose National Awakening Party had won only 10 percent of the seats, to play on Muslim opposition to a woman president and assemble a coalition to bring him to office.
But political analysts and associates say she has matured politically in the past 18 months.
"She's learned a lot about compromise, the need to work with other parties and people that originally she wasn't willing to work with," says PDI-P legislator and Megawati adviser Noviantika Nasution.
As parliament has spent a large chunk of its energies this year on the impeachment proceedings against Wahid, who is accused of benefiting from two financial scandals, and Wahid has escalated his war of words with legislators, Megawati has been quietly consolidating, building bridges to generals and leading politicians.
Her party says Megawati, who's often referred to as a "mother" figure who can unite the nation, will be able to impose tough but necessary policies. "She's going to be able to do things that a president whose credibility has already been destroyed can't," says Ms. Nasution.
One example: Nasution says Megawati will have a better chance of convincing the poor that ending fuel subsidies - a $5.5 billion drain on the budget - is in the national interest. Aides say she's finally become convinced that replacing the blind and ailing Wahid, once a close friend and ally, is necessary.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor