The making of a president

October 29, 1999

As Indonesia elects a new leader, Bill Watson looks at the mechanics of power broking in a troubled nation

As events unfolded in the week of the presidential election in Indonesia, the twists and turns in political fortune resembled an over-elaborate screenplay of a writer who had allowed her imagination to run away with her.

The central characters were the presidential candidates, each representing a large constituency but in one way or another flawed and heavily dependent on those playing strong supporting roles.

Support for B. J. Habibie, the outgoing president, lay in Golkar, the party which governed Indonesia in the Suharto years. Many of those associated with the Muslim Intellectuals' Association, which he had headed, were prepared to forgive him for his association with Suharto, as indeed were many foreign government representatives who had initially been alarmed by his early statements on economic policy. They had then been won round by his liberal stance on human rights, freedom of the press and, most of all, his courageous decision to allow the East Timorese a vote on their independence.

But the taint of the Suharto connection and a recent banking scandal plagued his campaign. The younger generation, students in the last years of Suharto's rule, loathed him.

Megawati, daughter of former president Sukarno, and the candidate of the PDI P, the party which had won most seats in the general elections last June, was extremely popular in Bali and in central and eastern Java, where almost a third of the nation's population lives. She was less popular elsewhere, and there was uncertainty about her ability and competence as a politician. Her advisers tried to shield her from having to make public statements, but on the odd occasion when she was quoted by the press her liberal supporters and foreign observers looked on aghast when she expressed sympathy for Suharto and appeared to condemn the decision to give the East Timorese a vote. Although she continued to be the darling of the secular middle classes she risked alienating even the most broadly tolerant Muslims.

This disenchantment among Muslim opinion allowed Abdurrachman Wahid, initially a Megawati supporter, to emerge as a strong third candidate. Well-known as the head of a Muslim organisation founded by his grandfather in the 1920s, he had gained a reputation for his adroit political manoueuvring. But his tendency simultaneously to maintain friendly relations with Habibie, Megawati and Suharto was regarded by some as evidence of an opportunistic hedging of bets.

It became clear in the last week, however, that the election would be determined not by what was happening on the streets - where students were demonstrating against Habibie - or in the general elections, but by negotiations within the MPR, the electoral body for the presidency.

Foremost among the supporting roles was the army chief of staff, General Wiranto. Both Megawati and Habibie were reported to have courted him. When eventually he turned down Habibie's offer to stand for the vice-presidency as his running mate, this caused real astonishment: the army appeared genuinely to want to remain neutral.

Another person of influence was Amien Rais, a university professor and one of the most vocal leaders of the movement that toppled Suharto. He was the most influential voice of a coalition of small Muslim parties whose collective vote could sway the balance in the MPR. This coalition had made it clear that they would support Abdurrachman: Amien was personally hostile to Habibie, while Megawati's secularism alarmed him.

In the event it was neither Wiranto nor Amien who played the key role but Akbar Tanjung, chairman of Golkar, a former leader of a modernist Muslim students' association and widely respected among the older generation. While supporting Habibie up to the last moment, it was rumoured that he was preparing contingency plans, such as forming a Golkar-PDI-P coalition under which he would be Megawati's running mate.

When Habibie decided to withdraw his candidacy after the rejection in the MPR of his account of his time in office, there must have been frantic lobbying to win the Golkar votes. In the end, once Akbar Tanjung decided to run with Abdurrachman there was little contest.

It is a result that will be broadly welcomed in Indonesia and abroad, where there was a fear of large-scale civil unrest if Habibie had been re-elected. Indeed the only group who will find it frustrating are Megawati's close advisers, her supporters in Jakarta and some students. Those who voted for her in east and central Java will feel happy with the choice of someone also seen as representing Javanese traditions.

Among Muslim voters there will be pleasure at the coming together for the first time since the early 1950s of all Muslim political groupings. Among non-Muslim groups, too, the new arrangement will be welcome, since Abdurrachman, although from a traditional and conservative Muslim background, has a reputation for promoting active cooperation with non-Muslims.

He will have his work cut out to restore law and order to many of Indonesia's trouble spots and bring to justice those guilty of human rights abuses and gross corruption. Thanks to having played so successfully the role of honest broker, he will be able to rely on the support of many different sections, from the military and the technocratic elite in Jakarta to the rural population in Java and in most of the regions of Indonesia in seeking to bring an end to what has been a very difficult two years for Indonesia.

Bill Watson is senior lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Kent and an Indonesian specialist.

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