Tue, 14 Nov 2000

Gus Dur's legitimacy

Should Republican Texas Governor George W. Bush win the U.S. presidential election, he will be in the same predicament that Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid has been in this past year. He will have a constitutional legitimacy, but not popular legitimacy, which went to Democrat Vice President Al Gore. If Indonesia's experience is anything to go by, then that makes governing a country next to impossible.

It will be interesting to see how Bush manages the United States under these circumstances. We know that Indonesia, under President Abdurrahman, is constantly running into turbulent waters often bordering on constitutional crisis.

Abdurrahman Wahid has never really enjoyed a popular legitimacy since he was elected in October 1999 to become Indonesia's first democratically elected president. With his National Awakening Party (PKB) clinching 11 percent of the vote in the June 1999 general election, he joined the presidential race at the last minute as a compromise candidate to break a deadlock.

He defeated Megawati Soekarnoputri, who enjoyed far greater popular support than he did because her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) had won the general election. His election was really the result of a conspiracy by a number of smaller political parties, including election runner-up Golkar, to deprive Megawati of her claim to the presidency.

Thanks to the complex system of an indirect presidential election, which is just as complex as the archaic U.S. electoral college, the nation ended up in a situation whereby the elected president only had 11 percent of the popular support nationwide.

President Abdurrahman has had the constitutional legitimacy but never the popular support to govern Indonesia. What he did have in the initial months of his presidency was popular goodwill -- which is not the same as popular support -- to allow him to take the helm. The popular goodwill was as good a mandate from the people as he could ask for under the circumstances. At least, it was more than his two predecessors could claim. B.J. Habibie and Soeharto (particularly in the last months of his rule) had constitutional legitimacy, but neither the popular support nor the popular goodwill to lead the nation.

More than 12 months after his election, unfortunately, President Abdurrahman Wahid seems to have lost a lot of that popular goodwill. He is constantly bickering with the House of Representatives and the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR). Instead of working to secure their support, which he needs given his precarious political position, he has confronted, provoked or even challenged both the House and Assembly into a fight.

Not surprisingly, he was censured by the Assembly at the annual meeting to scrutinize his first 10 months in office in August. But after promising to mend his ways before the Assembly meeting, he further alienated the major political parties, including Vice President Megawati and her PDI Perjuangan, from the decision-making processes when he reshuffled the Cabinet.

That virtually ensured Abdurrahman's fate in the House. The "meeting of hearts" of more than 150 Assembly and House members in Jakarta on the weekend showed just how little support he enjoys. More and more of them are now calling for his resignation.

The President's failure to resolve many of the country's problems, from political unrest, regional discontent, slow-paced economic recovery, to his inability to uphold the law and uproot corruption, have also undermined whatever popular goodwill he once enjoyed. Even many of his friends who supported him because of his commitment to democracy and humanity are beginning to keep their distance from him.

Abdurrahman Wahid seems to have reached the twilight of his presidency. Without any popular legitimacy to begin with, and with the people's goodwill becoming untenable, the only things he still has going for him are the constitutional legitimacy and the little support he enjoys from his zealous supporters in PKB and the Nahdlatul Ulama Muslim organization.

These may be sufficient to keep him in power until his formal constitutional mandate expires in 2004. But the political costs for the nation, which is entrenched in a perpetual crisis, may be just too great to bear. With the Assembly unwilling and unable to unseat the President, the ball is still very much in Abdurrahman Wahid's court.