THE CAR COLUMN
In Today's Newspaper
Let's See Whether Megawati Can Lead Wahid's New Cabinet
By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune
HONG KONG - Many question marks remain over the controversial new cabinet announced by President Abdurrahman Wahid last week. But the bigger question facing Indonesian politics as the Wahid era moves into its second phase revolves around Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri. Is she capable of being more than a mute symbol?
As part of Mr. Wahid's maneuvering to deflect attacks on him by the People's Consultative Assembly, Mrs. Megawati has now been handed apparent day-to-day management of the government, including presiding over cabinet meetings. She has not been handed power on a plate, but she has a platform on which she can build.
Can she contribute to making the new cabinet more effective than its predecessor, in which case she will boost the image of her rival and erstwhile friend Mr. Wahid? Or will her performance confirm suspicions that she is quite incapable of managing a government and thus is unqualified to succeed Wahid?
To date the sidelining of her party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, from an effective role in government has caused bitterness and is a primary source of Mr. Wahid's difficulties with Parliament, in which it is the largest party.
Mrs. Megawati's lack of agenda has given the impression that her party lacks the coherent policies and forceful personalities to make a positive impact on the administration.
Mr. Wahid's new cabinet has been characterized as owing more to loyalty to him than to technocratic expertise or a broad political base. But at least its smaller size and the absence of attempts to satisfy diverse political party interests should make it more decisive.
Some commentators and stock market analysts have been quick to attack the president's removal of Kwik Kian Gee, a leader of Mrs. Megawati's party, from the key post of coordinating minister for economic affairs. He is replaced by Rizal Ramli, a business consultant with a strong grasp of economic issues but who may be more nationalistically inclined than the IMF would prefer.
It is not long since Mr. Kwik, an intelligent and conscientious man but with scant experience of management or of handling the bureaucracy, was being attacked by these same commentators for ineffectiveness.
The Wahid government has been criticized less for its policies than for poor implementation. Its economic agenda has mostly adhered to the IMF program, ex-President Suharto is being brought to court, decentralization of power is taking place, and Mr. Wahid has expended political capital in trying to accommodate Aceh and heal the East Timor wounds.
But he has been unable to bring peace to the outer islands. And there is the snail's pace toward resolution of corporate debt problems and the return of flight capital, and very modest gains in rooting out judicial and bureaucratic corruption.
Compromises with past wrongdoers are inevitable if progress is to be made on these fronts. Attracting back capital means compromising with some of the (Chinese) business groups which helped bankrupt the banks in the first place. Peace in the outer islands requires more cooperation from the military, which, as Parliament has recently recognized, means leaving them with parliamentary representation and going easy on past abuses.
Bringing Mr. Suharto to book is necessary, but, given the complicity of so many in his regime, an excess of righteousness would not help Indonesia regain composure.
Meanwhile, effective government has been hampered by the attempts of Parliament and the People's Consultative Assembly to subject the president to excessive oversight. The need to submit all kinds of decisions - even, for example, on corporate and bank restructuring - to Parliament inevitably slows progress and subjects decisions to political comprises and influence peddling.
Some of the blame for these executive-legislative imbroglios lies with Mr. Wahid's high-handedness. But much, too, lies with the fractiousness of Parliament and the parties. Criticized he may be, but he remains popular, and confidence in his commitment to a plural and liberal Indonesia is intact.
Mrs. Megawati has the opportunity to show that she could one day make a worthy successor. She needs to reduce tensions between the executive and a legislature in which her party has 30 percent of the seats.
[Not to be reproduced without the permission of the author.]