President Wahid: The Tragedy of flawed nobility
The downfall of Indonesian
President Abdurrahman Wahid is a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare or the
Greek dramatists. That's not to say he did not deserve to be ousted.
But, like Othello, character flaws led to the destruction of an otherwise
noble and moral person after less than two years as president.
As a political leader, Wahid
was a failure, who ended up humiliated, firiendless but not feared despised
not hated. Yet he had contributed immensely to his country's progress,
to free speech and pluralism through the most oppressive years of the
Suharto era, to development of liberal democracy at the time of transition
He, the cleric, never wavered
in his commitment to a secular and plural Indonesia. He the Javanese
Muslim ended official discrimination against Chinese and was seen as
defender of Christians. He the leader of a nation humbled by loss of
a province embraced peace with the once jailed separatist leader of
an independent East Timor. He the Islamic scholar who studied at Al-Azhar,
Cairo's global center of Islamic learning, would speak warmly of Confucius
and promote contacts with Israel. He was the intellectual uninterested
in business and economic issues but who had few quarrels either with
local or international capital, or with free trade.
He was no Joseph Estrada,
with a dubious political background, scant intellect and devotion to
wine, women and gambling. He had no evident craving for wealth. Indeed,
he had long been almost a study in informality. His Jakarta office as
head of the Nahdhatul Ulama (NU) the religious organisation which was
his power base, was a dingy old building where visitors had a choice
of battered chairs, or the floor.He
was a study in informality and approachability and he took this characteristic
to the presidential palace which for more than 30 years under Suharto
had been as open as the Kremlin under Stalin.
So what went wrong? Half
of his problem was not directly his fault at all. He was a reformer
who genuinely wanted to clean up the judiciary, punish at least a few
of the cronies whose had grown rich courtesy of Suharto or the thieving
big businessmen who had plundered the country, via the banks they owned,
during the panic days of the Asian crisis of 1997/ 1998 and moved to
themselves to that comfortable paradise for ethnic Chinese crooks, Singapore.
In fact Wahid never made
much progress on the reform front confronted as he was by entrenched
bureaucratic and business interests and, especially latterly, he his
own increasingly desperate attempts to secure his own hold on power.
Prosecutions never quite happened and debt settlements were made which
did not stand too close scrutiny. But still he represented the closest
that the country's current political elite was ever likely to get to
reform so there was every incentive to get rid of him, to close down
His attitude to East Timor,
his attempts - however unsuccessful - at conciliation with the Aceh
independence movement, aroused the concern of military and nationalist
elements. His willingness to talk to NGO and labour groups aroused the
suspision of conservatives. His pressing ahead with implementation of
laws, passed under his predecessor President Habibie, to devolve powers
and budgets to local governments contributed to deteriorating law and
order in some localities, notably those best endowed with natural resources.
Centralised graft became decentralised graft.
Wahid's other big problem
which he did not specifically create was a legislature which at once
was fragmented yet anxious, after years as a presidential rubber stamp,
to assert its powers. It had been assumed that the president under the
Indonesian constitution had immense powers which were good for his term
of office. But parliament found that it could make life difficult for
the executive by failing to pass legislation or approve budgets that
the cabinet wanted.
It went from there to discover
that the Indonesian constitution was actually a hybrid between a parliamentary
and a presidential one. The president could be called to account for
things other than high crimes and misdemeamours. With only a small party
of his own, Wahid was vulnerable: ranged against him were Golkar, party
of Suharto; PDI-P, party of his vice president Megawati Sukarnoputri
and a party never reconciled to his outmanoevring her to the presidency
in 1999; and the Muslim parties which were either ideologically opposed
to his liberal version of Islam or were rivals for influence among the
So times were always going
to be hard for Wahid, however well he played his cards. However, with
his reputation, his intelligence and his cunning he could have overcome
all this but for two personal failings. The first, none of his fault,
was physical -- the near blindness which had crept up on him.over the
years, and the strokes, significant if not crippling, which hit him
shortly before he became president.
It may be insensitive to
suggest that blindness is a major handicap to effective government,
but it surely must be when it comes in late middle age to a man unable
to read braille and accustomed to reading books and other men's eyes.
It is also hard not to attribute
his sometimes erratic behaviour as president to the effect of strokes
of a man who before had often been mercurial and unpredictable but was
never scorned or laughed at. But he could have survived, perhaps even
capitalised politically on these physical problems but for the character
flaw: the arrogance of one born to power.
Approachable and informal
he might be, a man able to engage in unrancorous intellectual disputations.
But as inheritor of the NU movement he was accustomed to getting his
way. He believed in democracy, but found the practice of it very difficult.
It requires compromise, often with people for whom you have scant regard.
Born with a silver spoon he could not recognise either that the nature
of the presidency had been changed by the downfall of Suharto, or that
his small party base in parliament required him to cooperate with others.
Failure to do might at first
have been characterised as principle. But the more he was attacked the
more he responded in the manner of his detractors, resorting to devious
if not actually illegal practices. In the process he undermined the
one thing which had been his strength - his moral authority as a teacher
of tolerance and real believer in the national motto "unity from diversity".
So the man who started out as a President with whose all kinds of people
could identify ended up with neither political friends or moral authority.
The ideas he represented
are still desperately important for Indonesia. Likewise the character
flaw which did so much to destroy his presidency is a danger to all
who grow up accustomed to being obeyed and for whom success is a function
of birth as much as their own qualities.
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