Indonesia: 'He's Finished'

As thousands of militant supporters of Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid rallied outside parliament today in Jakarta, vowing to attack the building and stop the session inside, lawmakers didn't flinch. They voted overwhelmingly to call a special meeting of the country's supreme political body, the People's Consultative Assembly, or MPR, that has the power to-and probably will-remove him from office perhaps as early as August.

Today's vote was never in doubt. Since February, parliament had already passed two censure motions against the nearly blind president for his alleged involvement in two financial scandals and for his erratic, if not incompetent, leadership. But the president, a moderate Islamic cleric, never seemed to take the legislators' moves seriously. He largely ignored parliament, arguing that its 500 members didn't have the legal right to accuse him of wrongdoing and to bring impeachment proceedings against him. He should have paid them more heed. "He's finished," says Jusuf Wanandi, head of the Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

As the inevitability of parliament's action became increasingly clear over the past few weeks, the 60-year-old president began fighting back, not with soft words of compromise, but with threats. In April he raised the specter of 400,000 of his die-hard loyalists, who belong to his Nahdlatul Ulama Islamic organization, descending on Jakarta to forcefully defend their leader. He warned that the country would disintegrate because the restive provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya would immediately declare independence if he were removed from office. Finally, he recently began lobbying for his military chiefs and for his cabinet to accept his plan to declare a state of emergency and disband parliament if the lawmakers proceeded with their plan to call for a special session of the MPR.

Wahid's military commanders and his cabinet both flatly rejected those undemocratic means for him to cling to power. Last week the increasingly desperate and isolated president did what he had long refused to do: strike a deal with his popular vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, leader of parliament's largest party. With that party leading the push for the president's impeachment, he belatedly offered to transfer his "constitutional duties" as president to Megawati, the daughter of independent Indonesia's charismatic founding father, Sukarno.

But even that gesture was threatening rather than gracious. If Megawati refused the deal and didn't stop parliament from going ahead with today's vote, he told a cabinet meeting attended by Megawati last Friday, then he vowed to dissolve the legislature and invoke a state of emergency decree. It was a hollow threat, as it is hard to see how the president could enforce a security crackdown without army and police cooperation. After Wahid delivered the ultimatum he walked out of the meeting without waiting to hear Megawati's reply.

Angered by his threat, she too walked out of the meeting, saving her reply for a meeting with leaders of her own Indonesian Democratic Struggle Party (PDI-P) yesterday. She rejected Wahid's power-sharing offer and instead instructed her party to vote for a special MPR session. "She made it clear that she was not interested in the transfer of power," says Arifin Panigoro, the PDI-P's parliamentary leader. "She instructed us to go ahead with the [impeachment] process." Although a childhood friend and long-time ally of the Wahid, Megawati has lost all trust in the president. Last August, when he was also under pressure from parliament for his questionable leadership abilities, he promised to share powers with Megawati but never did. Worse, he continued to demean her in public, questioning her intelligence and leadership skills. "Megawati took the lead against him because she is fed up not only with the way he governed but also with the way he has treated her," adds Wanandi.

It was a major blunder that only increased his isolation. Unable to declare a state of emergency, Wahid suddenly announced in a brief speech from the presidential palace this past Monday that he had ordered his security minister, Susilio Bambang Yudhoyono, to take the necessary measures to "restore order, security and law as soon as possible." Megawati and his military chiefs were conspicuously absent as he made his speech. The president's order, said Yudhoyono, was really "nothing new."

In fact, the only security threat seems to come from Wahid's own followers. Yesterday, mobs of his supporters rioted in several cities in East Java, burning at least two churches, trashing the offices of his political opponents and even trying to attack the regional parliament in Surabaya. Today, as the violence continued in East Java, one of his rampaging supporters was shot dead by police, who-reinforced by paratroopers-have threatened to use lethal force to contain the rioting.

As M.P.s met inside parliament in Jakarta today, around 3,000 Wahid supporters, some brandishing clubs and knives, managed to break through parliament's steel perimeter fence and spill onto the grounds. Helmeted and armed riot police stopped their advance and a tense standoff lasted for more than two hours. The authorities moved in two water cannons and even mounted police to disperse the protesters amid their shouts of "Let's end the session," "Parliament is cheating the people" and "Long live Gus Dur"-a reference to the president's nickname. Finally, the protesters agreed to leave the grounds and disband before they were forcibly evicted.

Their histrionics failed to influence the legislators. They voted hands down to call for the special MPR session that will be held within two months. At the MPR meeting Wahid will be required to give an accountability address defending his less-than-two-year-old presidency. If, as expected, a majority of the 700 MPR members (which comprises the 500 M.P.s plus 200 appointees), vote to reject the president's speech, he will automatically be removed from office.

The MPR voted him into office in October 1999 as a compromise candidate when Islamic parties refused to accept Megawati as president on the grounds that she is a woman. Now the MPR can just as easily take away his mandate to rule. Fed up with Wahid's penchant not to compromise or consult with parliament, the Islamic parties now are openly pro-Megawati. If the MPR does turn down Wahid's speech, Vice President Megawati immediately becomes president to fill out his term until the next elections in 2004.

Now that Wahid is clearly on the way out, the key to maintaining peace in the volatile country is to ease him out of office as gracefully as possible. He and his supporters could cause serious trouble if they feel Wahid has been shabbily treated or humiliated. "The problem now is how to get rid of Gus Dur without humiliating him," says Wanandi. "We have to handle him honorably, decently and not needlessly provoke him or his supporters."

That will not be an easy task. But most M.P.s and, indeed, many Indonesians, simply want to get rid of him as soon as possible before Indonesia's weak economy and its jittery political and social stability worsen further. "The big deal now is to get a strong, effective and ethical leader to run this country," says PDI-P M.P. Pramono Anung. "We can't afford to wait much longer."