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 from autocracy.

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 reform.

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 faithful.

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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