Uphill Effort

Indonesia’s President has Daunting Tasks and Little Time to Show Improvement

by Tom Uhler

JAKARTA, Indonesia  
August 13, 2000

He’s in frail health and practically blind, and last week he fell
asleep as his state-of-the-nation speech was being read to the

But for better or worse, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid,
a 60-year-old Muslim cleric, has inherited the daunting task of
building democratic institutions, practically from scratch, in one
of the world’s most fractious nations.

The annual session of the People’s Consultative Assembly that
started last week and ends on Friday in Jakarta might have merited
scant attention in the United States if Indonesia were not the
world’s fourth-largest country, its biggest Islamic nation and its
third-biggest democracy.

The fate of the Wahid government could determine whether
Indonesia – made up of 13,677 islands covering 741,000 square miles
with a population of 210 million – continues its rocky experiment
with democracy or descends into political, economic and social
chaos. Its success or failure as an Islamic democracy will have a
huge impact on the rest of the Muslim world.

As if his political problems were not enough, Wahid has suffered
at least two diabetic strokes, has been blinded in one eye by
diabetes and can hardly see out of the other, and is overweight. He
relies on a host of advisers, and critics have accused him of
heeding advice from the last person he happened to be talking to,
including his masseur. Wahid’s problems were apparent in June when
a group of U.S. journalists – including this writer – visited
Jakarta on a Pew fellowship.

For weeks, members of the People’s Consultative Assembly had
threatened Wahid with impeachment on numerous counts, such as his
failure to revitalize the economy and crack down on government
corruption. He was also accused by friend and foe alike of being
erratic and at times contradictory, and of allowing a sense of
drift to seep into his 10-month-old administration.

Wahid’s problems are many – legacies from the autocratic rule of
former President Suharto. Western diplomats and Indonesian leaders
told the U.S. journalists that several thorny issues demand
immediate attention:

Government corruption – Suharto’s indictment (coincidentally
coming four days before the parliamentary session) was a milestone
in the government’s crackdown on corruption and nepotism. Suharto,
79 and ailing, is accused of stealing $571 million in state funds
to finance business empires for his family and cronies. But Wahid
has said he will pardon Suharto if he is convicted. And Wahid’s own
masseur has admitted taking $4.1 million from a government pension
fund; he later said he returned it.

Judicial reform – The government must somehow get rid of corrupt
judges, many of them left over from the Suharto years, when justice
was dispensed at a price. Attorney General Marzuki Darusman has
said he is reluctant to file criminal cases because judges are
susceptible to bribery. In addition, the government must initiate
legal reforms after more than three decades of judicial fiat under

Sectarian, ethnic violence – Sectarian violence in Aceh in the
north and Irian Jaya in the east, as well as ethnic clashes in the
Maluku islands, have claimed about 4,000 lives – making a mockery
of the national motto, “Unity in Diversity.” Suharto sympathizers
have been blamed for instigating the violence to destabilize the
country’s fledgling democracy. Some observers say that maintaining
Indonesia’s “national integrity” is Wahid’s most important task.

Economic decline – Indonesia still hasn’t recovered from Asia’s
economic crash, which led to Suharto’s resignation in May 1998
after 32 years. The currency, the rupiah, has lost 18 percent of
its value this year, trading at 8,725 to the dollar last week; the
stock market has plunged 27 percent; 60 percent of the population
is below the poverty line; and investment is way down because of
the instability.

Wahid’s chief economic minister, Kwik Kian Gie, resigned his post
on Thursday. Kwik had been the government’s prime contact with the
International Monetary Fund, which is overseeing a
multibillion-dollar rescue and reform package. But he had done
little to pacify his critics, telling Dow Jones Newswires earlier
this year, “If I were a foreign investor, I wouldn’t come to Indonesia.”

Military reform – Wahid has kept the once-mighty military out of
his administration and installed a civilian, Juwono Sudarsono, as
defense minister. But even though the police forces and military
were separated last year, they still operate under the Defense
Ministry, and their roles are ill-defined. Ironically, Wahid must
also revitalize a military that has suffered withering criticism,
initially for collaborating in ethnic killings and then for failing
to halt them.

Wahid managed to mollify his legislative critics last week with
an apology for his government’s shortcomings during his tenure.
After months of squabbling with the 700-member parliament, Wahid
acknowledged his weaknesses, vowing “to do whatever necessary to
improve the performance of the government,” according to reports
from Jakarta.

He also promised to trim at least 10 members from his fractious
32-member Cabinet. On Wednesday, he appointed Vice President
Megawati Sukarnoputri – the daughter of the country’s founder,
Sukarno – to oversee day-to-day affairs and bring order to his

The tactic has worked for now. Wahid’s chief critic, Assembly
Chairman Amien Rais, told reporters: “There will be no impeachment
during this session.”

Wahid also seems to have appeased anti-government protesters, who
have clashed with security forces during past political events but
not this one. The government might have pre-empted the
demonstrators by charging Suharto with corruption last week – a top
demand of the protesters since Suharto was forced from office two
years ago. A judge in Jakarta told reporters on Tuesday that
Suharto’s trial will begin before the end of the month.

But it’s only a reprieve for Wahid. Opposition legislators have
threatened to schedule a vote of no confidence or begin impeachment
proceedings if his performance doesn’t improve soon. He was elected
to a five-year term in October but is subject to annual review.

When he assumed the presidency in November, Wahid inherited a
bureaucracy that had been gutted by Suharto, who had the first and
last word in government matters. So in addition to dealing with
corruption, violence and a sluggish economy, Wahid must try to
erect democratic institutions where none existed.

As formidable as his job might be, the president has little time
to show results. Rais told the visiting U.S. journalists: “If given
one more chance and he doesn’t perform well, I don’t think he will
survive impeachment.”

What happens in the event of Wahid’s ouster is anybody’s guess,
but it could lead to a surge in separatism. Western diplomats and
his supporters are hoping that he can make it through his five-year
term and establish a democratic precedent in Islamic Indonesia.