Mon, 10 Jan 2000

Gus Dur's inner circle

Critics of President Abdurrahman Wahid accused him last week of practicing his own form of cronyism when he enlisted two close friends as top aides. Marsilam Simanjuntak and Bondan Gunawan, colleagues from Gus Dur's days at Forum of Democracy, were appointed respectively Cabinet secretary and secretary of government supervision.

They, along with Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri and a few, but not all, Cabinet ministers, make up the President's inner circle team which will be decisive in policy formulation. Since the President, who is almost blind, relies on input from his aides, members of the inner circle will not only have unimpeded access to him, but they will also be influential in the making of policies coming out of the Presidential Palace.

Anything wrong with this picture? No, as long as the inner circle team consists of people whom the President can trust, and who share his vision. They must also be competent in their appointed field. If they fulfill these criteria, they could enhance the performance of the President, and therefore the government.

Marsilam and Bondan appear to fit the bill. They and the President go a long way back as staunch critics of the Soeharto regime, long before they formed Forum for Democracy in 1990. There is no doubt that when it comes to promoting and defending democracy, they and Gus Dur share the same vision. With regard to competence, time will tell if they are up to the demands of the job, but the President must surely have considered this factor before appointing them.

Given the current state of the nation, especially with increasing criticism of the government's performance, the President needs all the help he can get. Top of the agenda is to strengthen his team. If he cannot reshuffle the Cabinet, then he should at least be allowed to strengthen the makeup of his inner circle.

It is clear that the President will encounter opposition if he goes ahead with his plan, as widely rumored last week, to make changes to the Cabinet. Gen. Wiranto, Amien Rais and Akbar Tandjung, three of four powerful political figures who were consulted by the President in forming his Cabinet last October, have made it clear that they oppose the plan, even as they recognize that it is Gus Dur's constitutional prerogative to make the changes.

Their opposition to the reshuffle plan comes not so much because they dismiss the need for it, but more because a reshuffle would undermine their own political power base through their links in the Cabinet. The Cabinet was formed in October as a "consensus" among the country's major political forces. Gus Dur thus consulted Wiranto representing the military, Amien (the Muslim-based Reform Faction), Akbar (Golkar Party) and Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI Perjuangan). Gus Dur himself represents the minority National Mandate Party (PKB).

The Cabinet has since been popularly called the "National Unity Cabinet" although it is not a term the President himself would use. While the intention was noble, in retrospect the decision to include representatives of all the country's five major political forces has proven disastrous. Instead of unity, we ended up with a divided Cabinet, with members having different visions and agenda from those the President holds. Many ministers are also acting as if they answer to their party bosses rather than the President. The poor performance of the Cabinet in its first two months of existence must take this into account; it cannot be entirely blamed on Gus Dur. While there is a strong case to reshuffle the Cabinet, one has to recognize that Gus Dur's hands are bound by his need to enlist the support of the major political forces to whom he owes his position. Governing from a minority position, his options are inevitably limited.

Since Wiranto, Amien and Akbar appear bent on stopping Gus Dur, a Cabinet reshuffle, if and when it happens, will likely be minimal and cosmetic. Any significant improvement in Gus Dur's performance will not come by replacing the Cabinet members. Instead, the appointment of Marsilam and Bondan will likely have a more far-reaching impact on the way the President manages the government. If their appointment is summarily considered to be cronyism, then we should have more of it. Regardless of the snipes of the critics, Gus Dur should enlist more trustworthy and prodemocracy members, including longtime friends, to round out his inner circle.