Abdurrahman Wahid: Former Indonesia president was a key democratic voice

Abdurrahman Wahid led Indonesia for two years after the fall of US-backed strongman President Suharto. He passed away Wednesday at a Jakarta hospital.

Dwi Oblo/Reuters
Supporters light candles in a vigil to mourn the death of former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, in Yogyakarta, Central Java, Wednesday.

An Islamic scholar and secular democrat, former President Abdurrahman Wahid led Indonesia for two years after the fall of US-backed strongman President Suharto. He passed away Wednesday at a hospital in Jakarta.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Indonesian flags would be flown at half mast for a week. A funeral is to be held on Thursday for the former president, who stepped down in 2001.

Popularly known as Gus Dur, Mr. Wahid emerged as a democratic voice in the chaos of 1998, when Mr. Suharto resigned in disgrace and his deputy paved the way for Indonesia’s first free elections in four decades.

As a politician, Wahid could draw on the support of Nahdlatul Ulama, a Muslim social organization founded by his grandfather that has around 40 million members. He also built ties to civil society groups pushing for change in the 1990s, when economic growth accelerated.

But he had also cooperated closely with Suharto and his family during their years in power, when most opposition was ruthlessly suppressed. To some that made him a suspect figure during the democratic transition.

After free elections were held in 1999, Wahid emerged as a compromise presidential candidate, edging out Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose party had won the biggest bloc of seats in the legislature but had many enemies in the former ruling party.

A backroom deal in October 1999 installed Wahid as president, with a disappointed Ms. Megawati given the job of vice president. At that time, an expanded parliament was empowered to elect a president to a four-year term. Indonesia has since shifted to direct presidential elections.

Wahid then attempted to govern a near-bankrupt country that was still largely controlled by unelected powerbrokers, including a disgruntled military that resisted civilian control. Suharto and his inner circle remained untouchable, despite Wahid’s flailing attempts to bring him to justice.

At times, Wahid appeared to have a tenuous grip on power. A mercurial character with a penchant for earthy jokes and playful rhetoric, he kept his opponents guessing by constantly shifting his position. A devout Muslim, he lifted restrictions on Chinese culture, promoted Christian-Muslim dialog, and advocated normalizing relations with Israel, a red flag to many Muslims.

He also alienated supporters, became embroiled in corruption scandals, and failed to make his reforms stick. In 2001, his term was cut short after lawmakers ousted him for alleged incompetence. Ms. Megawati took over and adopted a more conservative, pro-military line.

Wahid remained popular, particularly in East Java, his electoral base. In recent years, he had fought to regain control of his former political party and tried unsuccessfully to run again for president, despite bouts of ill health.

A speaker of English, French, and Arabic, Wahid was a generous host and an avid traveler. In the summer of 2001, as his opponents prepared to oust him from power, he tried to declare emergency rule and appoint loyalists to the military.

When that failed, he vowed to stay put in the presidential palace, even after the vote was cast to install Megawati. Army units gathered in a nearby square in a show of force.

A day or so of tension ended when Wahid announced that he was ready to leave. Outside the palace, hundreds of supporters crowded into a public square. Inside the palace, dozens of family, friends, and reporters lined up to shake his hand, including this correspondent.

In the blinding sunshine, he emerged from the back door and was taken to a rickety stage to address the crowd. Nobody could hear much over the shouting, and part of the stage collapsed.

Then Wahid climbed into a waiting van and sped off through Jakarta’s hazy traffic, vowing to return to power. He never did, but his place in Indonesia’s democratic consolidation seems assured.

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