SINGAPORE — The threat of impeachment from angry legislators stared Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid grimly in the face on Aug 7., when the 695-member People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) convened in Jakarta to review Indonesia’s progress.

Members of the country’s highest policymaking chamber were unhappy with his performance over the past 10 months since he assumed leadership of Southeast Asia’s largest and most important nation. Not only had the legislators lamented that the 60-year-old Wahid, also popularly known as Gus Dur, failed miserably to improve the depressed economy, triggering off widespread social unrest which could rip apart the fragile unity of Indonesia’s 220 million people.

They were also incensed that he had been implicated in corruption, cronyism and nepotism, the very crimes his administration had pledged to eradicate.

But the anticipated threat of impeachment did not materialize, though Wahid was somewhat battered by the deluge of accusations hurled at him in the course of the 11-day assembly sitting.

When the MPR finally adjourned on Aug. 18, Wahid had survived the onslaught — for at least until next year, when his performance would once again be subjected to scrutiny.

The legislators had let him go this time not because they accepted his “humble” apology in his obligatory accounting of his actions, but rather because they felt his impeachment would pave the way for his vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, to take over. They could not accept that prospect.

A recent survey conducted by Tempo, the popular Indonesian magazine, on 1,301 young people in five major Indonesian cities – Jakarta, Surabaya, Semarang, Medan and Makassar – found that although 51 percent of them thought that Wahid should step down as president, only 34 percent agreed to Megawati taking over from him. Though there may be certain shortcomings in this poll, it is nevertheless a fairly accurate reflection of the political trends in the post-Suharto period, where freedom of expression, suppressed for 32 years, has been given full play.

Megawati, a housewife turned polician, whose popularity was attributed more to the reputation of her father, first president Sukarno, leads the reformed Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P), a mass-based movement consisting of of secular Muslims, Christians and other non-Muslims, which had secured the largest bloc of seats in the MPR.

The other factions in the fractured assembly include: Golkar, the ruling party during the Suharto era; the theocratic Muslim-based United Development Party (PPP); Wahid’s National Awakening Party (PKB) and the National Mandate Party (PAN).

Had the legislators succumbed to the temptation of impeaching Wahid, the sacrosanct Indonesian constitution would have been invoked as to enable Megawati to take over. This would be like shooting themselves in the foot, as it would undo all that they did last October to keep Megawati out of the presidency at all cost.

When Megawati publicly declared her intention to become president after the PDI-P won the highest percentage (34 percent) of votes in the hotly-contested general election in June 1999, she fanned the hostility of all those who disliked her.

PDI-P and Golkar were fierce rivals for the secular Muslim, Christian and other non-Muslim votes, mainly in Java Island, seat of mainstream politics. Megawati had also been persecuted by Golkar’s former patron, Suharto. Although Golkar eventually rid itself of the Suharto image, the party’s antagonism toward Megawati remained unchanged.

The PKB, PAN and other fringe Muslim groups did not like Megawati, perceiving her to be a nominal Muslim who opposed Islam’s political thrust currently sweeping across the diverse archipelagic nation.

The fear of Megawati becoming president was so strong as to make the various factions opposed to her sink their differences. Wahid, whose credentials as a respected moderate Muslim cleric with egalitarian views acceptable a wide cross-section of Indonesians, was seen as the best bet. The collaborators succeeded when Wahid defeated Megawati in a straight fight by polling 373 votes to her 313. But fearing the threat of riots by angry PDI-P members, Wahid manipulated to have her elected as his vice president instead of the PPP’s Hamzah Haz.

Wahid displayed considerable skill in defusing the tension, but in the process also displeased some of those like the PPP which had helped him secure the presidency. Lacking a wide political base, the president was to later use the same manipulative tactics to create a system of checks and balances among the various factions in his “rainbow coalition” when it came to policymaking.

As president, Wahid placed a higher priority on overseas trips to secure foreign investments in reviving Indonesia’s shattered economy and also restore its tattered image particularly after the 1998 Jakarta riots and the East Timor massacres.

But his critics who wanted him to be at home to resolve problems in troubled areas accused him of failing to prevent the rupiah from weakening against the U.S. dollar, curb growing unemployment, defuse sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in the resources-rich Maluku Province and halt secessionist tendencies in outlying provinces like Aceh and Irian Jaya.

They also lamented that instead of stamping out corruption, cronyism and nepotism, he was actually condoning them when his masseur absconded with a $2 million from the Department of Logistics, or Bulog, meant for economic development in Aceh.

PDI-P and Golkar were particularly unhappy over the sacking of their key ministers in the coalition — PDI-P’s State Enterprise Minister Laksamana Sukardi and Golkar’s Trade Minister Yusuf Kalla — without conclusive proof that they were involved in corruption.

Now that Wahid had been given a respite for at least a year, all eyes are on his “new” approach to tackle Indonesia’s wide array of socioeconomic and political problems.

The media has given wide publicity to his proposed delegation of some powers to the vice president and two key coordinating ministers in charge of security/politics and economy/finance in a revamped Cabinet. To the consternation of his detractors, Wahid had made it clear that ultimate power will still rest with him when stating that the delegated “powers” refer more to “duties” than “authority.”

The vice president and two “coordinating” ministers would still answer to him. For his latest successful political maneuvering, Wahid can thank not the structure of the Indonesian Constitution, which is modeled along the lines of the U.S. Constitution in defining presidential powers, but also the bickering factions.

On Wednesday, he appointed a 26-member Cabinet to replace the 35-member team.

Though the constitution has been amended since the fall of Suharto to reduce the president’s powers, such as the annual accounting instead of every five years, Wahid has skillfully used the situation to maximum effect to frustrate his critics.

Finally, to further bolster his position, Wahid has started cultivating the unpopular military. During the last week of the assembly, he had a hand in delaying the phasing out of their 38 nonelected members in the MPR to 2009, from the original 2004.

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