Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid has outfoxed his opponents again. Facing an insurrection within the Parliament, the president recently apologized for past behavior and then delegated many of his duties to Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri. It is a shrewd move by the wily Mr. Wahid. Whether it is good for Indonesia, which desperately needs real leadership, is another question.
Since taking office nine months ago, Mr. Wahid has made few friends. He has shuffled his Cabinet seemingly at random, accused ministers of corruption without providing evidence and zig-zagged on policy without making much progress on the big issues that confront Indonesia — corruption, separatist violence and how to achieve economic recovery. That is no way to govern, especially when he heads a fractious coalition and his party holds just 11 percent of the seats in Parliament.
There were fears that parliamentarians would mount a constitutional coup against the president when they held their annual meeting earlier this month. Even though the constitution does not give the National Assembly the power, opponents of Mr. Wahid were thought to be contemplating a scheme that would replace him. To head off a revolt among lawmakers, Mr. Wahid apologized to the Parliament and said he would hand over the day-to-day tasks of governing to Ms. Sukarnoputri. He later declared that he would assemble a four-person team — himself, Ms. Sukarnoputri and two other coordinating ministers — to make key decisions. A Cabinet overhaul is expected now that lawmakers have wrapped up their session.
A more united government is necessary. Indonesia faces basic challenges, and a fresh start is needed. The economy continues to stutter, and reforms have been blocked. Political tensions have scared away much-needed foreign investment. In addition, there is evidence of military complicity in lawlessness in the Malukus and in rising violence among militia groups trying to make trouble in East Timor.
To be fair, many of the problems are not of Mr. Wahid’s making. He inherited the economic mess, his coalition allies have frustrated reform and implementation of policy has been haphazard at best. The government’s control over the military seems questionable, and there are elements in the leadership that would profit from continued violence and seeming impotence on the part of the government. For her part, Ms. Sukarnoputri has shown little aptitude in the one job she had — settling the violence in the provinces. There is little reason to believe that she would be a better president than Mr. Wahid, even though she seems to think the post is rightly hers.
Heading off the revolt is a victory for the president. Giving Ms. Sukarnoputri “duties” while Mr. Wahid retains “power” is a neat political trick, but it does not solve the country’s problems. The new Cabinet must focus on two objectives: the pursuit of genuine economic reform, and reining in individuals supporting violence in the provinces. Unfortunately, the obstacles to both reside within the government itself.
In many ways, Indonesia is experiencing the growing pains of its young democracy. Remnants of the old order, both within the former ruling party Golkar and the military, have not reconciled themselves to their new status. They prefer instability, which provides them with an opportunity to call for law and order. Mr. Wahid’s adroit handling of the Parliament fended off one challenge.
There was also some success in handling the delicate question of the military’s role in politics. Currently, the Indonesian military, known as the TNI, has 38 seats reserved for its members in the 700-member Parliament. In a deal struck last week, the TNI agreed to give up its seats in the House of Representatives by 2004 as stipulated last year, but will keep its seats in the People’s Consultative Assembly until 2009. In addition, the TNI’s representation in Parliament has been formally recognized for the first time. Human-rights campaigners are disappointed, and some lawmakers conceded that the decision was made out of fear of the consequences of an outright ban.
It is better to consider the glass half-full. The military is being eased out of politics and this transitional period will facilitate the process. There is no reason why it cannot be speeded up as democracy is consolidated in Indonesia. And it is clear that democracy is taking root. The People’s Consultative Assembly meetings were messy. There was concern that Mr. Wahid might be the victim of a constitutional coup. But he survives. Indonesian democracy has been strengthened. Economic recovery will help consolidate the process. That is next on the president’s agenda.
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