There are a growing number of students on the streets of Jakarta who are hoping to do to Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid what was done last month to Philippine President Joseph Estrada: depose him through the deployment of people power.
The parliamentary procedures by which Wahid could be impeached are convoluted and protracted. They were not laid down in the 1945 Constitution. So the impatient students, fed up with Wahid’s lackluster leadership of the crisis-stricken nation, hope to duplicate in Jakarta what happened recently in Manila.
They would like to achieve Wahid’s removal quickly through people power so that the current crisis, brought about by corruption allegations against the president, is not drawn-out. It could take Parliament at least four months, and probably much longer, to achieve Wahid’s removal through impeachment.
There are some influential Indonesian politicians who agree with this aim and who have been calling for Wahid to resign. There is no lack of popular impatience with Wahid’s seeming inability to extract Indonesia from its ongoing economic and political slump.
Yet Wahid still has some powerful allies, not least the 40 million-strong Muslim organization known as the Nadlatul Ulama, particularly strong in East Java, which is perfectly capable of flooding the streets of the main Javanese cities with pro-Wahid people power from its extensive rural base.
Wahid led the NU for many years in the days when he was opposing the autocratic ways of long-ruling President Suharto. There are no signs yet that it is deserting him. So there is a real risk that people power in Indonesia could provoke violent conflict on the streets, whereas in Manila the likelihood of any such eruptions was very small.
There are numerous other differences in the respective situations in the Philippines and Indonesia.
* By the time the huge crowds moved onto the streets of Manila, Estrada effectively had no major allies. His cronies in corruption were already fleeing to Hong Kong and elsewhere. The only people willing to forcefully demonstrate for Estrada had to be paid to do so. Wahid is not yet in a similar position.
* Estrada’s six-week impeachment trial, watched nationwide on television, painted a convincing picture of his pervasive corruption, which greatly increased opposition to the idea of his remaining in office.
The two financial episodes with which Wahid is charged seem picayune by comparison, and in any case are not widely understood. Many Indonesians are more upset that he has not done more to successfully prosecute the Suharto family.
In Estrada’s case, the only issue was the extent to which he had personally profited from his presidency. In Wahid’s case, it is not yet clear that he has personally gained from the two scandals in question.
* In the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, the single unifying figure of Cardinal Jaime Sin once again played a vital role as he called on the faithful to come on to the streets and protest. One breakaway sect, the El Shaddai, which draws most of its support from the poor, had been supporting Estrada but quickly changed course once the huge crowds assembled.
In predominantly Muslim Indonesia, there is no such single unifying figure. Wahid himself can still influence the rural-based NU. One of his current enemies, who calls for Wahid’s immediate resignation, is Amien Rais, speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly and leader of the urban-based Mohammediya organization, which claims to have nearly 30 million members.
* People power in Manila was not just a case of spontaneous political combustion against the ruling president by an irate citizenry. There was certainly that element in the movement. But organizers had been getting things together for weeks before that.
They were preparing to start demonstrating in the middle of February when they expected the Senate to declare Estrada “not guilty” in his impeachment trial. When, instead, the Senate exonerated him on Jan. 16, they were ready.
So far there are few signs of similar advance organizational efforts in Jakarta. The students may be relying too much on hopes of a spontaneous political explosion.
When the crunch came in Manila, communication among and between all the groups involved was enormously facilitated by “texting,” the sending of short sharp messages between the millions of cell-phone owners. Sixty million texting messages were exchanged in one day at the height of the crisis.
Such speedy mass means of communication would seem to be lacking in Jakarta.
* As the people-power crowds assembled, top army generals in Manila told the organizers that they would formally withdraw support from Estrada once there were a million Filipinos on the streets. When that occurred, the military merely acknowledged the nationalist upsurge, but the nationalist upsurge did not endorse a military takeover.
The military role in Jakarta is bound to be more complex. For now, it is trying to keep order between the rival camps. If violence breaks out and the military feels overextended, its leaders may pressure Wahid to depart — and then take over themselves.
If a military coup threatens, the students will have to decide what they dislike more: Wahid the ostensible democrat or a return to military-backed rule.
* Last but not least, Estrada was never perceived as a particularly skillful political in-fighter. Wahid, by comparison, is widely recognized as a canny political operator, which is how he became president in the first place when his political party only secured 10 percent of the seats in Parliament.
People power in Manila erupted when Estrada successfully induced a Senate majority to see things his way. People power in Jakarta may yet fade away if Wahid can belatedly bring himself to treat Parliament with less disdain and more respect.
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