Sat, 09 Oct 1999

Gus Dur briefs Muslim scholars on candidacy

JAKARTA (JP): Abdurrahman Wahid briefed 13 Muslim scholars from Central and East Java on his presidential nomination on Friday night, but there was no final decision on whether the scholars would support his bid to the government's top post.

"They were glad to hear my explanations. But they decided to withhold their decision until one day before the Oct. 20 presidential election," Abdurrahman said after the 90-minute meeting, which was held just after his visit to East Java with his presidential rival and close friend Megawati Soekarnoputri.

Abdurrahman, who is popularly known as Gus Dur, said the scholars questioned the seriousness of the level of support from the "axis force", a loose alliance of seven Muslim-oriented parties.

Gus Dur has repeatedly said he would only run for the presidency with the full consent of senior Muslim scholars from Central and East Java.

Chairman of the Langitan Islamic boarding school KH Abdullah Faqih, a leader whom Gus Dur regards as his guru, did not attend the meeting.

Earlier on Friday in Jombang, East Java, Gus Dur said he would join the presidential race only after meeting with Abdullah Faqih.

"If I get the nod from Abdullah Faqih, I will go ahead," he said.

Gus Dur and Megawati, the presidential candidate for the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) went to East Java on Friday to pay homage beside their fathers' graves.

They arrived in Blitar before midday in a BMW car. First they visited the grave of Megawati's father, Indonesia's founding president Soekarno. After local religious leaders completed prayers beside the grave, the entourage headed to Jombang, some 60 kilometers north of Blitar.

Gus Dur's father and grandfather are buried in Jombang. The small city is also the birthplace of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). The organization has more than 35 million followers and has been chaired by Gus Dur since 1984.

Gus Dur was nominated on Wednesday as a presidential candidate by the National Mandate Party (PAN) and the Justice Party (PK).

The two parties, which are members of the axis force, together have 40 members in the 700-seat People's Consultative Assembly.

Gus Dur said in Jombang that he had accepted his presidential nomination by the two parties to ensure that there would be at least two contestants in the Oct. 20 presidential election.

"Within a normal democracy, there should be at least two candidates in an election. If other candidates withdraw from the race, then there will still be two contestants: me and Mega," he was quoted by Antara as saying.

Asked about the possibility of a withdrawal of her good friend's support, Megawati said she and Gus Dur had often traveled together and discussed issues of importance to the nation.

"What we both are striving for is not a matter of winning or losing, but wholly in the best interest of the nation and the state," Megawati said.

Political analysts, however, say Gus Dur's nomination will complicate the presidential battle, which previously pit the incumbent, B.J. Habibie of the Golkar Party, against Megawati.

Habibie all out

Habibie told a media conference on Friday evening that he was highly optimistic of his chances for the presidency.

"I think I have the same chance as other candidates," he told the special media meeting, which was broadcast live by state- owned TVRI.

"I am not a coward. I will fight all out, but without using money politics," he said in reply to rumors that he would attempt to stay in power at all costs.

He recalled analysts' premature predictions of his early time in the nation's top job, which became vacant after president Soeharto stepped down in May 1998 under enormous pressure from demonstrating students and a collapsing economy.

"They predicted that I would survive for only three days, then for three months. But you see I am still here.

"Many have often criticized me for talking too much. But now I must listen a lot," he said.

The President dominated the media session. His drawn-out responses, which detailed his administration's achievements, permitted only about five reporters to raise questions during the 90-minute conference.

Habibie said he was confident the Golkar party would not review his candidacy at its leadership meeting early next week.

"I don't think they would change their candidate only a few days before the race. That would be disadvantageous to Golkar," he said.

In a related development, the chairman of the National Awakening Party (PKB), Matori Abdul Djalil, reaffirmed on Friday his party's full support for Megawati's presidential bid.

Matori was commenting on PKB deputy chairman Alwi Shihab's remarks on Thursday that the party was throwing its support behind Gus Dur's candidacy.

"The support expressed by Alwi Shihab and friends was only meant to show their appreciation in response to Gus Dur's nomination," Matori said.

"As the leader of the party, I say that PKB is still committed to its candidate, as decided in the senior official meeting." That candidate was Megawati, he added.

Matori proposed Golkar's Akbar Tanjung as the Megawati's running mate in the presidential battle, saying that both command domestic and international respect.

"The Mega-Akbar partnership in the top leadership posts is the most ideal team to lead the nation out of its present crisis," he said.

Golkar chairman Akbar Tanjung, who was recently nominated as the House of Representatives (DPR) speaker, said that Gus Dur's nomination by some members of the axis force would make the presidential race tougher.

"The presidential battle is certainly set to become much keener, because the central axis alliance, with support from several other factions, could command almost 200 members in the 700-seat assembly.

"But the situation is still in such a state of flux that things could change by the hour," Akbar said.

Commenting on Megawati and Gus Dur's joint homage to East Java, Akbar said he hoped they had been able to forge an agreement in regard to the MPR General Session, especially the presidential election.

Meanwhile, some 11 youth groups affiliated with the NU and Muhammadiyah organizations, urged the Reform faction at the MPR to uphold Gus Dur's presidential nomination.

Speaking at a joint conference held on Friday, the youth groups' leaders also declared their support for Gus Dur in the presidential race, saying that the NU leader was considered the "best choice" among the existing candidates.

"Gus Dur is accepted by all elements of the society and he can work together with all parties," Nadjamuddin Ramly of the Pemuda Muhammadiyah said. (emf/vin)