It is hard to believe, but Indonesia seems to be heading toward yet more political chaos. That country’s Parliament voted Monday night to censure President Abdurrahman Wahid for a second time. That sets the stage for an impeachment vote later this year, which would set off widespread demonstrations by Mr. Wahid’s supporters. The last thing Indonesia needs is more political uncertainty, but there is little sign of any alternative.
This week’s censure motion, which passed with an overwhelming majority, accused Mr. Wahid of failing to provide clear explanations for his involvement in two corruption scandals. In one case, he is charged with involvement in the theft of 35 billion rupiah (nearly $3.3 million) from Bulog, a state commodities fund. The president’s masseur has admitted to taking the money, but Mr. Wahid denies authorizing him to do so. In the second case, the president is charged with lying about a $2 million donation from the sultan of Brunei. The donation was intended for humanitarian assistance in Aceh, but the money never reached the province.
While those charges provided the factual grounds for the motion, the driving force behind moves to replace the president is growing frustration with his leadership. The Parliament has been angered by Mr. Wahid’s claim that it has no authority over him. His idiosyncratic leadership has compounded the irritation felt by many in the legislature. His government’s lack of progress in tackling the many problems that Indonesia faces — economic stagnation, corruption and ethnic separatism — has been the final straw.
The president has one month to respond to the censorship vote. If the Parliament deems his response insufficient — which is likely, given the increasingly combative tone to the country’s politics — it can ask the People’s Consultative Assembly, Indonesia’s highest legislative body, to begin impeachment proceedings. Mr. Wahid counters that he is not accountable to the legislature until 2004, when his term ends. That sets the stage for a constitutional — and national — crisis.
The president’s dwindling support in Parliament has not affected his popularity among the masses. Tens of thousands of people have demonstrated against the legislature’s moves, taking to the streets and declaring their readiness to fight and die for Mr. Wahid. An impeachment vote would polarize Indonesia, leading to violent clashes that would in turn provoke a government crackdown.
Mr. Wahid’s term in office has been marked by disappointments. Secessionist movements have gained strength since East Timor voted for independence. Ethnic and religious violence has grown. The economy has not recovered from the financial crisis that hit in 1997 and forced former President Suharto from office. Corruption is no longer practiced on the scale that it was during Mr. Suharto’s reign, but it still saps the economy. Mr. Wahid’s failure to set the country to rights is compounded by the idealism that brought him to office. The disappointment is more acute, the anger greater.
The fault is not Mr. Wahid alone. Many of Indonesia’s problems can be laid at the feet of members of the old order, who, despite Mr. Suharto’s retreat from politics, continue to exercise considerable influence. They have blocked many of the government’s initiatives and tried to protect their prerogatives. The military’s role in the violence that has convulsed the country is unclear, but there are many reports of security forces standing idly by during various attacks.
Indonesia needs a strong and capable leader. Mr. Wahid has thus far proven unable to measure up. That does not give the legislature the right to remove him — at least, the constitution does not say as much. Mr. Suharto’s sad end is proof that strength is not sufficient. Indonesia needs the rule of law, and Mr. Wahid, for all his flaws, seems to understand that.
So does Ms. Megawati Sukarnoputri, the vice president, who is slated to take power if Mr. Wahid is forced from office. Ms. Megawati has been waiting for this moment since she was denied the presidency two years ago. Having won the most votes in the general election, her disdain for bargaining propelled Mr. Wahid into office.
Despite her belief that the presidency is rightly hers, she has shown no eagerness to force Mr. Wahid to step down. There are several reasons for that. She and the president are old friends; the house arrest and isolation that her father, former President Sukarno, suffered made a powerful impression on her. Hopefully, she understands the challenges that lie ahead and knows that precipitous moves would only compound the difficulties in governing an increasingly fractious and divided Indonesia.
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