Indonesia: A Sinking Feeling.


Associate Professor David Reeve

Turmoil over the presidency of Indonesia has erupted again since mid-March.

Pro- and anti- Abdurrahman Wahid forces clashed in Jakarta and in East Java, as they had in early February. This issue had been simmering during yet another of the president's overseas trips. This time round the rupiah and stock market have sunk to the lowest levels since 1998.

This is a power struggle between institutions, between the presidency and the parliament (DPR), also involving the future political role of the military. At another level it is about personalities and ambitions, concerning the future of the president and his vice-president, and his leading critics, house speaker Amien Rais and Golkar head Akbar Tanjung.

It also involves the future of reform, with the emerging coalition of Megawati Sukarnoputri's PDI-P, Golkar and the military finding common ground in conservative nationalism. Megawati used to be a symbol of 'reformasi' but the new alliance is bringing her together with those who have most to lose from democracy and accountability.

Six weeks ago it seemed that the President had run out of friends and that his replacement was a matter of time of months, weeks or even days, if he followed advice to resign. But the president's physical frailty distracts attention from his immense determination – what his opponents call his stubbornness and cunning.

In February Abdurrahman showed his cunning, turning the spotlight on his accusers. A campaign for Golkar to be dissolved, as a core element of Suharto's New Order, was combined with an announcement that ten major New Order corruptors were to be arrested. Presidential supporters attacked Golkar buildings across East Java, as well as some institutions associated with Amien Rais. In Surabaya the Golkar headquarters were burnt down by a huge rally, while security forces looked on.

There are three themes here. Firstly, Abdurrahman Wahid has again shown his skill in refocussing the national agenda. Secondly, the threat of arrests reminds his opponents of the powers of the presidency. Thirdly, the attacks on Golkar buildings are a sharp reminder of his ability to mobilise his huge following in his defence. This threatens to open a Pandora's box.

In March the battle over the presidency was renewed. The president continued his tactics but the torrent of criticism mounted. The prospect was continued turmoil.

WATCHPOINT: Vice-president Megawati's reluctance to force out the president may turn out to be decisive.


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