JAKARTAPresident Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia faces many crises, several of his
own creation. But it would be wrong to assume that he is doomed and unwise to
believe that his early removal, even if conducted constitutionally, would be
Whatever Mr. Wahid's physical condition,
personal failings, political ineptness and lack of administrative ability, the
available alternatives are worse. They could quickly reverse the modest progress
that Indonesia has made in devising, though barely implementing, reform.
Friendly governments would do better to
consider how they can best avoid aggravating issues. The present situation where
the International Monetary Fund appears to be the chief interlocutor between
Indonesia and the outside world is troubling. Whatever its technical merits, the
IMF's micro-agenda and unearned self-righteousness raises nationalist hackles
here, aggravating the instability which is sapping energies and making policy
implementation ever more difficult.
Expectations were always too high that
with one election and the liberal Mr. Wahid at the helm Indonesia could create a
clean, decentralized, democratic and plural system while also rebuilding a
collapsed financial system. Democracy has changed the rules but not the players
and created new monetary demands on a system imbued with corruption.
Decentralization and changes in the voting system may eventually change the
players but for now reform will remain a very slow process, whoever leads, and
is partly at odds with the need for faster resolution of corporate debts.
Mr. Wahid started with a weak hand, owing
his position to maneuvering within the Peoples' Consultative Assembly though his
own party has few seats. His behavior has weakened him further - intellectual
arrogance, autocratic ways, and a refusal to acknowledge that the power of the
presidency has waned. Parliament may be fractious and immature, but cannot be
Mr. Wahid could form a more effective
government if he were less determined to defend his own prerogatives and more
willing to make compromises with Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose
PDI-P is the largest party in Parliament. That might not improve the quality of
the cabinet but would allow Mr. Wahid to spend more time governing and less on
political maneuvers. It would also reduce the likelihood of issues being fought
on the streets, where Mr. Wahid's Muslim group has muscle. A third Wahid cabinet
with more PDI-P and technocrat membership is now a possibility but whether Mr.
Wahid can change his autocratic ways is in doubt.
But do not expect too much from cabinet
changes. Failures to prosecute Suharto era criminality or enforce bankruptcy
orders is more due to the pervasiveness of corruption than to Mr. Wahid.
It is possible that Mr. Wahid can be
removed, but the constitutional process is murky and could raise the political
temperature on the streets to boiling point. Nor is there any reason to believe
that Mrs. Megawati would be an improvement. Mr. Wahid's faults are in
implementation, not policy. He remains the most inclusive figure, a Muslim
leader with a mass following who is trusted by Chinese and Christians. Given
Indonesia's fragile social fabric, this alone is good reason for him to stay. He
has at least tried to find non-military solutions to the Aceh and Irian
insurgencies, and is committed to decentralization. He has an international
outlook and favors an open economy.
Mrs. Megawati owes her position to her
name as former president Sukarno's daughter, not her ideas, organizational
ability or anti-corruption zeal. She would take a more nationalist stance on the
economy and is more popular in the army because she favors a tough line on Aceh
and is viewed as more easily influenced than Mr. Wahid. But she would face as
many problems with Parliament as Mr. Wahid and is a more divisive figure who
might spark the rise of a more radical Islam.
Further ahead new options may open up -
including the return of the now divided and discredited military. But for now
the status quo, despite its many frustrations, is the best option. It is also
likely to prevail because the political elite has not changed significantly. The
Jakarta elite will be reluctant to push their personal interests to the point of
causing chaos. Society is fraying at the edges but still expects its leaders to
Allies should note that Indonesia's
problems are in the first place political and should receive attention at the
highest political level. They need to quietly persuade Mr. Wahid to be more
flexible while avoiding lectures on micro-economic issues. Public bullying of
the embattled government of this huge and proud nation is no way to help
Indonesia remain a plural, united and open society. Above all, be more patient.