Sat, 12 Aug 2000

Constitutional amendment debate may be postponed

JAKARTA (JP): Recognizing the political divides and public controversy over making amendments to the Constitution, several factions are suggesting postponing debate on the issue till next year.

A number of members of the People's Consultative Assembly's Commission A, charged with constitutional amendments, conceded on Friday that the differences may be too difficult to overcome, and that forcing the issue with a simple vote could create political antagonism that could affect members of the public.

"There is possibility that we could compromise and decide to postpone several sensitive articles, such as the Article 29 (on religion) and draft amendments on the state principles and direct presidential elections till next year's annual session," said Yusuf Muhammad, chairman of the National Awakening Party faction at the Assembly.

"But it is still a maybe," he said.

Yusuf said postponing these articles would be a "wise thing to do" to prevent political conflict among legislators that would damage political stability. He added that there was no urgency to immediately change them.

"For example Article 29. We can still use it (as it is). If we force an amendment now and decide through voting, it will only open new political wounds which could potentially create national disintegration," Yusuf added.

Commission A chairman Jacob Tobing from the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) also indicated his support of a slow approach to amending the Constitution.

He maintained that this was not an attempt to stall the debate.

He argued that principle articles in the Constitution should be first introduced to the general public.

"We are not conservative, but we need a more in-depth understanding and more consideration to amend these principle articles," Jakob said.

He recommended that pending the discussion of these articles, particularly the ones that touch upon the country's fundamentals, it would be better to maintain them in their original form.

"This is not meant to say that we are not willing to negotiate, but our stance is that maybe keeping the old articles is better," he added.

After debates on the presidential progress report and Cabinet reshuffle that dominated the first four-days of the annual session, Assembly members are now turning their attention in earnest to constitutional amendments and draft decrees.

Among the most contentious of them centers on Article 29 on religion. Muslim-based factions are demanding a clause on adherence to Islamic syariah law for Muslims be included.

Most factions seem opposed to it and would like to keep the article as it is, as an acknowledgement of other religions and faiths.

There are also fears that the amendment could create disintegration.

Another contentious issue is whether there is support for an amendment on the use of direct presidential elections.

PDI Perjuangan seems staunchly against it, while the Golkar Party faction also seems to be leaning away from its original position of supporting the amendment.

However, if debate and voting is postponed, Yusuf said it would only apply to key articles while the more "simple" ones were likely to ahead.

Slamet Effendy Yusuf of the Golkar Party faction said his faction would support continued debate and a decision on the amendments during the current session, but felt it necessary that voting be avoided in determining the sensitive articles.

"We'll do our best to be able to deliberate all the articles during our sessions. One thing is for sure, we are trying to avoid voting on whether to pass a certain article or not, especially on sensitive issues," Slamet said.

He remarked that the issue of religion would be treated carefully, relying on lobbying instead of voting.

He stressed that such a principle issue should have the full consensus of the whole Assembly.

"If we can't agree to amend it, the article will likely retain its current form. Rather than wasting our time, it would be better to focus on other articles," said Slamet. (dja/nvn)