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Wahid and the future of Indonesian Democracy

Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst

The problems for Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, affectionately known as "Gus Dur", continue to mount. If a dysfunctional civil service, flagging economy and impeachment trial were not enough, on January 2, Professor Ryaas Rasyid resigned, the architect of regional autonomy laws and key reformer. The professor had been talking of leaving ever since August, when he was pushed, unwillingly, from the position of Regional-Autonomy Minister to a new post in charge of administrative reform.

Rasyid's resignation not only casts further doubt over the political prowess of Wahid, whose erratic leadership style has alienated many of the politicians that voted for him 18 months ago. More seriously, it has exacerbated already strained relations with Vice-President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is believed to have strongly backed Professor Ryaas? proposals and is increasingly being viewed by hard-liners in the military as a viable alternative to the Indonesian leadership. The prospect of a deal being concluded between Megawati and the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) to topple Wahid is now a distinct possibility, which would set back hugely the prospects for a successful democratic transition in Indonesia.

Wahid the lesser (of several evils)
For all his faults, Wahid remains central to the future course of democracy in Indonesia. On one level, the practical example of his tenure will be crucial to the way future governments are chosen and rejected in the country. If the democratic process is to take root in the Republic, it is vital that he be allowed to serve out his term, and only removed by the popular will of the people via the ballot box.

More intrinsically, however, Wahid is likely to get more done in terms of advancing institutional and civil reform than anyone else in Indonesia. As Greg Barton, an Islamic scholar at Melbourne's Deakin University and Wahid's official biographer, observes, Wahid is a man of unbending conviction who ?will keep troubling away at the issue of democratisation and reform. If you really want to scuttle the prospects for democracy in Indonesia, the best way would be to get rid of Gus Dur?.

Unfortunately, Wahid faces a multitude of challenges to his rule, not least of which are the volatile security forces. Recently, senior officers have increasingly expressed their dissatisfaction with the President's inability to address the problems facing Indonesia - including talk of the "failure of democracy".

While the risk of an outright military coup cannot be dismissed, the prospect of this being met with international vilification and the suspension of IMF assistance militates against such a scenario.

More likely will be an attempt to return to the centre stage of politics behind the sham of a civilian president. It is here that the possibility of a "sweetheart" deal between Megawati and the armed forces takes on added relevance. The fear is that the vice-president will succumb to overtures from the military, whereby, in exchange for their support in backing her "candidacy" for the presidency, she allows the TNI a decisive role in the running of the country.

Iron fist in the velvet glove
The seriousness of such an occurrence taking place should not be underestimated. Not only would it effectively destroy the nascent democratic experiment currently underway in Indonesia. It would also lead to a return to the type of heavy-handed internal security measures that, in many ways, are responsible for the surge of separatist sentiment in Aceh and Irian Jaya. This would almost certainly be a recipe for renewed bloodshed and could quite easily provoke the type of insurgent backlash that leads to the nightmare scenario of both Jakarta and the international community: the balkanisation of Indonesia.

The basic problem confronting Wahid is that he increasingly lacks the political capital to offset potential threats to his rule such as that of a coordinated Megawati/TNI challenge. To survive, he must harness all the political mastery that originally brought him to power. Unnecessary cabinet reshuffles of the sort that led to the resignation of Rasyid will not consolidate either his position or that of Indonesia. It is little wonder that western capitals, from Canberra to Washington, are viewing the developing situation in the republic with increasing trepidation.

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