Tue, 04 Jan 2000

Cabinet shake-up? Not yet

JAKARTA (JP): As the capital buzzed with speculation of an impending Cabinet reshuffle, President Abdurrahman Wahid dropped a hint on Monday, which unfortunately, neither confirmed nor denied those rumors.

Speaking during a gathering with leaders of his Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and National Awakening Party (PKB) at Merdeka Palace, the President said he might replace State Secretary Ali Rahman with State Minister of the Empowerment of Women Khofifah Indar Parawansa.

"If something happens to Pak Ali, he will be replaced by Khofifah," said the President, who described Khofifah as a "super minister".

Ali was one of four names rumored to be losing their Cabinet jobs. The other three are Coordinating Minister for Political Affairs and Security Wiranto, Minister of Trade and Industry Yusuf Kalla and Minister of Manpower Bomer Pasaribu.

The rumor mills have never ceased turning since the President urged Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri on Saturday to cut short her trip to Hong Kong and return to Jakarta for consultation over a very serious matter.

A senior government official said Ali was unhappy because the President had reduced much of the authority vested on the once powerful State Secretariat.

Managing incoming and outgoing presidential letters as well as drafting presidential decrees have been shifted to the office of Presidential Secretary Ratih Hardjono. Minister of Law and Legislation Yusril Ihza Mahendra has taken over the state secretariat's power in drafting or processing bill drafts.

"Pak Ali is not happy because he deals only with administrative matters," the official said.

Palace officials said Abdurrahman and Megawati met in the morning and again on Monday evening.

"They discussed a plan to replace some ministers," said one official, who asked anonymity.

Megawati, State Minister of Research and Technology A.S. Hikam and Minister of Foreign Affairs Alwi Shihab -- all considered to be members of Abdurrahman's inner circle -- separately declined to comment on the reshuffling rumors.

"Oh, let's just break the fast first," Megawati said before getting in her car after meeting with Abdurrahman in the evening.

The inclusion of Wiranto in the rumor mills emerged following a reported rift between the former Indonesian Military (TNI) chief with the President over various government policies, including on how to deal with the unrest in Aceh and Ambon.

Some analysts dismissed the likelihood of Wiranto being replaced, saying that he remained a powerful military figure. They recalled that Wiranto was one of four figures consulted by the President in forming the Cabinet in October.

The President made it known that he was unhappy with the Cabinet lineup. He said he had to accommodate the interests of the country's major political forces, including TNI, when he formed it shortly after his election on Oct. 21.

He has since been dropping hints that three Cabinet members were facing a corruption investigation but without actually disclosing any names. He announced in December the resignation of senior Muslim politician Hamzah Haz from the post of coordinating minister for people's welfare and poverty eradication, although the latter denied any plan to resign from the Cabinet.

Analysts said the President's "National Unity" Cabinet was potentially divisive because of the diversity of the political interests of its members.

House Speaker Akbar Tandjung joined the fray on Monday, saying the President should not reshuffle the Cabinet just yet.

"It's too early to reshuffle the Cabinet. We have to give them (the ministers) time to work," said Akbar, who participated in proposing the names of the ministers in the Cabinet in his capacity as Golkar chairman.

Acknowledging that he had heard the rumors of a reshuffle only from media reports, he said making changes now would be detrimental to the government's image because it would be an admission that the President had made the wrong choice.

"I hope to meet with the President soon to ask about the rumors," he said, adding, however, that the President had a prerogative right to replace the ministers.

Akbar criticized the Cabinet for lacking a sense of crisis in dealing with the nation's mounting problems, from the unrest in Ambon, Aceh and Irian, to the slow recovery process in the banking and economic sectors.

House Deputy Speaker Soetardjo Soerjogoeritno supported the President's plan to replace some ministers because of their poor performance.

"I'm very disappointed with their performance. Some of them have no concept at all in solving the country's problems," said Soetardjo from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle.

But he acknowledged that it was too early to reshuffle the Cabinet, suggesting the public ought to give at least 100 days before passing any judgment about the ministers' performance. (prb/jun)