By Michael Vatikiotis
HONG KONG (JP): Of the many stories floating around Jakarta about Gus Dur, one of them is a telling indicator of his qualities as a politician.
Back in 1990 Gus Dur was one of a number of Jakarta intellectuals who formed a new dissident grouping known as Forum Demokrasi. After several meetings it was decided to search for a leader for the group. As one of the founding members, Gus Dur's name was mentioned.
But wait, said one member of the group. Shouldn't the leader of an organization dedicated to the pursuit of democracy be democratically elected?
Gus Dur said nothing. Then, another member quickly opposed the move. His argument was that since the group was facing an authoritarian foe -- namely the military -- it should dispense with democratic niceties in order to avoid divisive squabbling and focus on the struggle for democracy. Gus Dur again said nothing, and was duly appointed leader of Forum Demokrasi without an election.
Most observers consider that Gus Dur stands for ideals -- specifically democracy and religious tolerance. So when he was elected president by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) on Oct. 20, 1999, the country and its friends breathed a sigh of relief. Some of those who know him well held their breath in a moment of apprehension, however.
It wasn't just that the man has suffered two strokes and is clearly unable to do much with his failing eyesight. Neither was it his mercurial and humorous personality. It was more than anything his nature as a politician that was some cause for worry.
Good politicians do not make committed idealists. Political survival requires flexibility and, above all, the skillful manipulation of ideas.
Those who know him suspected that Gus Dur won the presidency because of skillful manipulation and a degree of deceit. Perhaps a measure of luck was also involved. Other candidates either lacked ability or appeal. But otherwise, given the odds, a lot of it was clever politicking. Gus Dur simply outfoxed everybody else -- much as he had predicted he would in the weeks before the election. Some time before the MPR Special Session, Gus Dur approached a senior newspaper editor to ask him to release a member of staff -- so that she could work for him "when I'm in the palace".
So if he is not an idealist, what kind of leader is Gus Dur, and where is he taking the country and its vulnerable fledgling democracy?
Indonesian politics lacks institutional checks and balances and is therefore a treacherous arena. Loyalty is fickle; personality is paramount, and patronage rules.
Gus Dur has known the way things work ever since he sat at the feet of his eminent grandfather who served in Sukarno's Cabinet.
In fact, he has spent his entire career in the political arena. He managed to steer the country's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, through a period of anti-Islamic feeling. He helped launch a dissident group in the 1990s that managed to escape persecution. He championed the cause of democracy while at the same time lending support to its most ardent enemy, president Soeharto.
Gus Dur rose to prominence, not because of his idealism, but because he knew how to make and break political deals. No Indonesian politician has managed to threaten the government one year with a mob -- and support it's sham election campaign the next.
There is another seldom-mentioned aspect of Gus Dur that disturbs some people. As much as he speaks foreign languages and likes Beethoven, Gus Dur is also a thoroughly traditional figure. He plays well to the grass roots with his manipulation of traditional symbols of power -- jocularity, spiritualism and unpredictability.
Like his predecessor, Soeharto, Gus Dur makes sudden twists and turns on the political stage and plays divide and rule. He likes it to be known in a subtle way that he consults the spirits of ancient kings -- seeking inner strength from the whole panoply of Javanese icons from Muslim saints to the sultan's of Mataram and Majapahit -- and even the grave of founding father Sukarno.
Above all he is the quintessential dalang (puppeteer) politician -- which is all about looking as if you control everything around you rather than actually doing so.
All this is to say that Gus Dur is not one-dimensional -- not simply an idealist. He is more accurately a political animal with keen instincts, which means we can't take his ideals for granted.
For all his support for democracy there is precious little evidence in the first eight months of his leadership that the institutions of democracy so badly needed in Indonesia have been reinforced.
In fact, as political foes circled him, he lashed out and threatened the mass arrest of his opponents. For all his passion for tolerance, he was unable to stop the Laskar Jihad from reaching North Maluku -- and he insists on saying that warring local communities should sort out their own problems.
Supporters and sympathizers like to pin the blame for Gus Dur's problems on his enemies. Losers from the old regime are seen as taking advantage of Gus Dur and his family to destabilize the government.
Although hard to prove, that is undoubtedly so, in some instances -- but not all. Corruption has crept back into the palace because Gus Dur badly needs money to build his own support base and kick-start a political machine. His National Awakening Party (PKB) party came third in the June 1999 elections and other parties are coalescing in opposition to him.
Gus Dur admitted recently to discussing the use of state funds for political ends. This is a problem that plagues all reformist governments in their early stages: You need a slush fund to buy the tools needed to clear out the drains.
Of course, realpolitik dictates that idealism becomes the first victim of strong leadership. Gus Dur promised in the early weeks of his presidency to help former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is languishing in jail. Just three months later he had embraced Anwar's persecutor, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and struck a deal for cheap rice. So much for ideals.
Successful consolidation should give Gus Dur the chance to execute some of his ideas and implement his ideals. But consolidation has proved difficult because of severe economic problems and a disgruntled elite that cannot bury differences and work for the good of the country.
So he has turned instead to close family members and trusted friends. They, it seems, do their best to keep the bad news from reaching him -- perhaps out of consideration for his frail health. Trusted economic advisors and Cabinet colleagues are left to guess how the President has arrived at his decisions -- because he certainly has not been listening to them. A real worry for the future is that Gus Dur may be unaware of what is wrong.
That's what happened to Soeharto in his final years. The culture of power in Indonesia insulates the leader from criticism by clothing him in warm praise. Sycophancy plagues the presidential office.
A senior Cabinet minister from the old regime once demonstrated that he could get his secretary to agree that the sun was shining even if it was dark and wet outside.
Gus Dur has also been convinced of his rectitude by the plaudits he received from overseas in the first months of his presidency. Foreign support is now waning in the absence of results. Predictably Gus Dur has resorted to making nationalist threats.
But let's make no mistake about Gus Dur; he isn't one to rely on anybody. He has a long track record of distaste for alignment. On his visit to Cuba, Fidel Castro actually came to visit Gus Dur in his hotel.
But perhaps the saddest prospect is that Gus Dur will start losing perspective because of his physical ailments. Two successive strokes have made him moody and intolerant. He gets angry with close family members and often looks confused in public situations.
On several occasions he has appeared insensitive -- like going ahead with a recent overseas trip instead of visiting victims of the Bengkulu earthquake. His tendency to crack jokes in public gatherings is said to be a psychological byproduct of blindness -- a need to hear other people present and be assured of their approval.
For all these reasons it is hard to take refuge in the idea that Gus Dur is an idealist. This in turn reduces him in stature and strips him of any kind of defense on moral grounds. Policy is drifting and the very same popular forces that drove Soeharto out of office are mustering again. Gus Dur remains the best of a bad bunch for young radicals who experienced the power of the mob in 1998. His political opponents are clearly concerned that his premature removal would not necessarily win public support.
But if the economy does not improve and the whiff of scandal is not dispelled from the palace, the students will be back. A pity, though. Indonesia does not need another change of political course.
It took a good two decades for the rot to accumulate and foreign and local support to abandon Soeharto. Sadly there is already an air of decay hanging over Merdeka Palace and many foreign governments are mulling over alternatives. But expect the Gus Dur presidency to cling to power. Rather like the short-lived reigns of later Ottoman sultans when the empire was in decline, everyone can see the need for change, but worries what their future will be once the music stops.
The writer is managing editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. This article was taken from Questioning Gus Dur, a book newly published by The Jakarta Post.