Tue, 08 Aug 2000

Abdurrahman's account

Indonesians all over the country can draw a breath of relief. President Abdurrahman Wahid's progress report of his first year in office appeared to be received well enough, if not enthusiastically, by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR).

In the streets of Jakarta, where tens of thousands of troops and police were deployed ready for trouble, life proceeded as usual despite protests by a few hundred demonstrators trying to march on the Assembly. It seems that the embattled President has weathered the storm of criticism -- for now.

Which is as many analysts and observers expected. For whatever critics may say about Indonesia's first democratically elected President, it is difficult to deny the fact that in the ten months he has been in office, he has achieved what no other Indonesian president before him achieved. Besides, faulting the President for his failures to the point of impeaching him at this point would likely do the country more harm than good.

Most notable of all, Abdurrahman has, almost single-handed, tamed the once all-powerful military and established civilian supremacy in the government. He also remains firmly committed to the protection of human rights and democracy -- a commitment he again affirmed in his speech yesterday by pledging to continue to protect the freedom of the press.

State institutions such as the Supreme Court and the central bank have been made independent from the executive and the nation's legislatures, both in Jakarta and at the regional level, and have been empowered to perform their duties as true repositories of the people's sovereignty. The democratization of state institutions and the granting of autonomy to the regions is being worked on and is expected to be finalized before long.

On the other hand, there is no denying the fact that his failures and shortcomings remain many. Many people are critical of his government's political will to eradicate corruption -- one of the major points on the agenda of the reform movement that brought down the governments of president Soeharto and his successor, president B.J. Habibie.

Sectarian strife and separatist movements in a number of regions is another problem the government of President Abdurrahman Wahid has failed to resolve; both remain one of Indonesia's major headaches. Sectarian violence in the eastern Indonesian province of Maluku, for example, has not only claimed the lives of more than 4,000 people according to some estimates, but also destroyed past developments there.

"Thousands of homes, places of worship and schools have been rebuilt. But, unfortunately, provocations leading to new conflicts have shattered all the results that were achieved," Abdurrahman reported. However, in the face of his failure to do anything about the carnage of past months, his promise to keep the country intact and preserve national unity has a somewhat hollow sound.

In the economic field, the government has a little more to show the public in the way of achievements. But while there has been a reasonable improvement in the country's economic fundamentals, political uncertainties continue to haunt the financial and stock markets.

In all of this, it is fair to remember that Abdurrahman inherited a host of hugely complicated problems from the previous New Order regime. With some hindsight, it may be said that his major shortcoming has been not his inability to govern, but rather his erratic style of leadership and his penchant for making controversial statements which he often later lightly denies. All these statements create unnecessary political complications that upset the market and have cost him at least part of his support from his coalition partners in the Cabinet.

The President's appearance before the MPR yesterday leaves him with a chance to improve his performance over the coming year. There have been indications in the past weeks that he is managing to reign in his erratic style and may well be able to continue to do so. If so, the first step toward assuring his job until the end of his term in 2004 may be assured.

The upcoming reshuffle of the Cabinet, which Abdurrahman promised to the MPR, could indicate whether he has really managed to improve his style of leadership. Let's hope this is true. Otherwise, he may well be facing similar hurdles to the ones he is facing now at next year's annual session of the Assembly.

By that time, the political landscape may have changed in a manner that may not be favorable for him.