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Current Pessimism About Wahid's Indonesia Is Exaggerated

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

JAKARTA - It is easy to be pessimistic about Indonesia. There is evidence enough - a falling rupiah, money scandals close to the presidential palace, public disagreements between ministers, a feud between the president and the central bank governor, a continuing culture of corruption in the judiciary and the bureaucracy, slow progress in bringing Suharto era culprits to account, ongoing bloodshed in Aceh and the Moluccas, threats of impeachment of a president whose lack of sight is now recognized as an impediment to good government.

However, current problems must be seen in the perspective of the two and half years since the Suharto regime began to topple, not just in contrast to last year's optimism after a generally peaceful and successful democratic process brought the liberal-minded if mildly eccentric Abdurrahman Wahid to power.

Long before President Suharto's demise, the writer Gunawan Mohamad commented, ''When Suharto goes, everything will have to be reinvented.'' Mr. Wahid has the task of presiding over the second stage of reinvention.

He is not going to be impeached at the August session of the People's Consultative Assembly. There is no time even if there were the will, which there is not.

His failings may have become apparent in recent weeks, but there is no alternative. Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri says and does little. Statements by Assembly's head, Amien Rais, have added to suspicions, especially among secularists and non-Muslims, that he is too ambitious to be trusted. Parliamentary Speaker Akbar Tanjung has added to his stature by being moderate and practical, but, being from Golkar, the former ruling party, he needs to bide his time.

The skills which make Mr. Wahid an effective politician are the opposite of those required for decisive administration. He excels at ambiguity, making compromises, changing tack, keeping opponents guessing. Christians, Chinese, even ex-Communists feel comfortable with the Muslim leader. Acehnese and Papuans can engage with this quintessential Javanese.

He may not have been able to resolve religious, ethnic and separatist conflicts, but he has contained them, perhaps even laid the groundwork for eventual resolution. Meanwhile, he has outmaneuvered those in the military who sought to cling to political power.

But he has shown scant regard for proper procedures that would moderate his personalized view of power and tendency to loose talk.

His inability to read has enhanced his need for trustworthy lieutenants, but not his ability to pick them. Nor has his style helped his disparate group of ministers construct and carry out decisive policies.

Still, it would be wrong to suggest that Mr. Wahid is largely to blame for poor administration. As his party has only a small number of seats in Parliament, he must deal with the demands of coalition politics. Nor is the cabinet free to make policy and expect Parliament to go along without argument. Such is multiparty democracy.

Most of his ministers are necessarily inexperienced, and many are from academic backgrounds. They find it hard to make decisions, and even harder to push them through a sluggish and Byzantine bureaucracy still staffed by the beneficiaries of past malpractice.

Even those such as Attorney General Marzuki Darusman who are determined reformers and know the system constantly face obstacles thrown up by judges determined to frustrate due process and protect old-guard interests. The central bank's independence, so much an article of faith for the IMF, has prevented the government from ousting its governor.

It is easy to say, with the IMF, that the government should be more decisive in dealing with the disposal of assets linked to the $60 billion worth of defaulted loans now held by the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency. The assets need to be sold to reduce the debt burden on the government, but this is a mine field. Quick disposal at fire sale prices might be in the country's best medium-term interest, but would it be fair to sell cheaply not just to foreigners but to the same businessmen who defaulted on debts and took the money offshore?

Tax and land disputes in the provinces, so troubling to investors in mining and plantations, cannot be laid at Mr. Wahid's door. They are partly a reaction against past abuses and partly a result of the as yet incomplete shift of some administrative and fiscal power from Jakarta to province and district level. These decentralizing reforms, begun under President B.J. Habibie, are part of the process of ''reinvention.''

Desire for housecleaning and accountability for the past is often at odds with today's immediate needs. Meanwhile, democracy itself demands a different kind of balance.

There is no easy way out. Mr. Wahid, for all his administrative failings, is still the best person to keep the political balance between justice and reconciliation, reform and stability.

The political temperature here will probably rise further as the Assembly session approaches. Mr. Wahid can expect to be severely chastised. There is a suggestion that the position of first minister or prime minister be added in the constitution.

Mr. Wahid would oppose any such move to weaken the president's authority. But he would do well to delegate more power to ministers. Criticism of his record should provide him with an opening to make wholesale cabinet changes, streamline the government and reduce the number of ministries.

Despite much mayhem on the fringes, most of Indonesia, particularly the Javanese heartland, is at peace even though old-regime provocateurs work to stoke ethnic tensions so as to discredit the government. The economy is improving slowly and can maintain a low-level equilibrium even if flight capital does not come back. Timor has been forgotten. The press is free and lively.

Extremism has made little headway. Demands for ethnic wealth redistribution have faded. There is at least a possibility that an imaginative approach to reform of the 1945 constitution will provide a way out of the Aceh and Papua problems.

The process of reinvention was always going to be long and difficult. The debt overhang has made it more so. But, given the magnitude of the problems, events of the past two years suggest that current pessimism about Indonesia under Mr. Wahid is overdone.