The upper house of Indonesia's parliament voted by a wide margin on Saturday to begin proceedings that may remove President Abdurrahman Wahid from office as early as today.
Mr. Wahid has been called by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) to give a speech today accounting for his rule. If rejected, his mandate will be revoked. He has so far refused to deliver the speech and in that case his parliamentary opponents have guaranteed his fast dismissal and will replace him with Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri within the week.
Leaders of the three largest parties in the MPR, along with a representative of the military's political interests, held a strategy session at Megawati's South Jakarta home yesterday, and they practically proclaimed her president when it was over.
"God willing ..., there will soon be new national leadership,'' MPR chairman Amien Rais told reporters after the meeting. "We agreed to give our moral support to Megawati so that her government will be stable, just, and productive.''
Though Wahid, who is being impeached on allegations of corruption and general incompetence, has warned of violence by his followers if he's toppled, there were neither protests nor riots in support of the president over the weekend. Leaders of Wahid's own National Awakening Party appeared to be backing away from the embattled leader.
Megawati is the most popular politician in Indonesia, and her party controls the most votes in parliament. Her presidency, in the short term at least, would help restore the government's tattered domestic credibility.
Since the Suharto dictatorship collapsed in May 1998, Indonesia has been beset by rising separatism, lawlessness, and environmental destruction across this sprawling archipelago. Wahid's government has done a woeful job of tackling those problems.
But Megawati is also the deeply conservative daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, and is on the brink of the presidency, thanks to warm relations with the Indonesian military and the cooperation of the Golkar party - the party Suharto used to stifle political competition during his 32-year rule.
Analysts say the new power configuration under Megawati will be even less likely to solve the problems now plaguing the world's fourth-largest nation, particularly when it comes to cleaning up corruption and military human rights abuses.
"Indonesia's reform movement peaked and died on the same day - when Suharto was kicked out of office in 1998,'' says Jeffrey Winters, a political scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who has spent his career tracking Indonesian politics.
Even if Megawati proves a surprisingly effective leader, the divided parliament - Megawati's party holds just 35 percent of the seats - will continue to prevent action.
"This process isn't about democracy: It's about who gets what piece of the carcass,'' says Dr. Winters. "Megawati will represent at least temporarily a political breakthrough, but we're going to go back to a political deadlock again fairly quickly.''
Wahid's impeachment saga began last year, when he was linked to two financial scandals. But at the heart of the effort to remove him is a disquiet over his fitness to rule.
A victim of a series of strokes, his behavior has grown increasingly erratic. He frequently contradicts himself, publicly insults important political allies, and devotes much of his time to praying at the graves of Javanese mystics.
He has vowed to go down fighting, labeling impeachment "an act of treason" and warning that his followers might burn the legislature if he falls. But his effort to hang on to power has looked increasingly quixotic and parliament's resolve has been stiffened, rather than cowed, by his threats.
The special session to remove Wahid had been originally scheduled for Aug. 1, even though he had been threatening for months that he would declare a state of emergency and dissolve parliament to head off impeachment. Since the military and police had promised they wouldn't back that move, the rest of Indonesia's political elite weren't too concerned.
But then on Friday, Wahid replaced the national police chief in the face of parliamentary warnings that if he did so, legislators would accelerate impeachment hearings. They moved up hearings on the president's fate from Aug. 1 to Saturday.
Rais, the assembly speaker, said on Saturday that the body would probably replace Wahid by Tuesday night: "Without a miracle, he's finished.''
The 700-member MPR, which consists of the 500 elected members of parliament and 200 appointees, elects Indonesia's president to a five-year term, and Wahid rose to the presidency thanks to astute coalition building during the October 1999 election.
Now the MPR has scheduled a session for today in which Wahid's mandate to rule may be revoked.
"If he doesn't come, the assembly will definitely revoke his mandate,'' said Sophan Sophiaan, the chairman of Megawati's parliamentary faction. "The next step will then be to appoint the vice president as the new president.''
Despite Wahid's dismissal of the proceedings, their constitutionality seems clear. The constitution states the president is subordinate to the MPR, and appears to give it the explicit power to remove a leader if it believes he has transgressed the MPR's guidelines for his conduct.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor