Mon, 22 May 2000

Is a first minister what govt needs?

Amid the pros and cons to a suggestion for President Abdurrahman Wahid's government to have a first minister, scholar Arief Budiman of the Melbourne University does not think it is a bad idea.

Question: You were among those who initially proposed the need for Gus Dur's government to have a first minister. Why do you think this is important?

Answer: This is about the recent situation in Indonesia. It depends on the process of economic recovery. If the situation is getting better, which depends on economic recovery, there is no urgency to push the government to appoint a first minister.

The idea (of a first minister), was initiated after I saw major steps back by Gus Dur (as Abdurrahman is popularly known). He made a series of mistakes, starting with firing Laksamana Sukardi and Jusuf Kalla from his Cabinet, followed by the Jawa Pos (bullying of the press) and Gus Im (appointment of Gus Dur's brother Hasyim Wahid as special expert to the Indonesian Bank Restructuring Agency) incidents.

Gus Dur's statements with regard to the latter incidents showed that he has really changed. He's no longer the Gus Dur I know. The three incidents occurred just in a two-month period. If there's another serious incident, we will have to really think about a first minister.

What's happened to Gus Dur?

I can feel his steps back. My hypothesis is that he is now unable to govern Indonesia anymore due to physical inadequacies. Psychologically, vision impairment (Gus Dur is almost blind) will erode one's confidence. His mind has gone off track. Many agree he has changed.

With regard to Jawa Pos, regardless of who was right or wrong, Gus Dur should have said that it was not right (to invade Jawa Pos' editorial office). Many thought that he would condemn the action. But he did not. He even accused the paper (of trying to undermine his government). He is just like Soeharto. I don't really know why he behaved like that. Perhaps he is too busy and he does not have any experience as a President.

Then the Gus Im incident broke out. It could be true that Gus Dur was not involved (in the appointment of Gus Im), but he should have delivered a symbolical statement that he did not agree (with the appointment).

He must realize that all of his close friends and relatives are being approached by businesspeople. I really did not expect that a man with such a caliber like Gus Dur could experience a major setback.

So you support the first minister idea?

I have discussed the idea with a number of people. The idea is good and it has a precedence from during the Sukarno government, before the reinstitution of the 1945 Constitution, when Sukarno was only a state symbol.

He handed over his authority to govern the country to a prime minister. Now, because of his health, it would be much better for Gus Dur to become a state symbol and hand over governing to a first minister.

What is a first minister?

It means prime minister. Legitimately, there are two ways to appoint a first minister. First, it's the President's prerogative. Gus Dur, in this case, appoints someone and he can still intervene.

There is no need to amend the 1945 Constitution, but the title chosen must be first minister. Gus Dur, however, still retains power. So we expect to see him having a sense of propriety.

Second, which is a better way, is for the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), in its general session in August, to issue a decree stipulating Gus Dur as a state symbol and appoint a first minister. This is possible because the MPR is the country's highest legislative body.

Why is the second option better?

This concerns Gus Dur. Based on the 1945 Constitution, the President has the authority to appoint a first minister. But now, people doubt Gus Dur's judgment. It has become risky to give Gus Dur more power. He has changed.

The management prowess he had when he was leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama seems to have disappeared. So, it will depend on the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, Golkar and the Axis Force (of Muslim-oriented political parties) on how to proceed.

What will the main barriers be?

Talking about a first minister roughly means planning to topple Gus Dur, nothing else. All of them -- Megawati Soekarnoputri, Akbar Tandjung and Amien Rais -- are ambitious. They have to keep their personal ambitions in check.

Just think about the nation, then appoint someone outside of politics who is intelligent, acceptable to most people and really understands bureaucracy.

If the person is not capable, there can still be a successor, but we must be consistence in implementing our economic and political policies.

I agree with a theory that says Pakistan is the best model for Indonesia, that when people get fed up with civil politicians' clumsiness in handling the nation's dire problems, mainly the economic turmoil, and fail in solving conflicts like those in Ambon and Aceh, the military will be asked to take over power.

What about Megawati, Akbar Tandjung or Amien Rais as first minister?

Amien is well known for his zigzagging political stance, Megawati for her lackluster performance. Objectively speaking, Akbar has the ability. He has the skill in bureaucracy and is intelligent. But he is from Golkar. Most people and the students would be very upset if Golkar returned to power.

Will we need a first minister afterward?

It would be better if we adapt a system in which a president is only a symbol, like in India, Singapore, or kingdoms in Britain, Japan and Malaysia. It would be good for a heterogeneous nation like Indonesia. There is a kind of unification factor here. In the current situation, Gus Dur can play a pivotal role in that sense because so many groups accept him. (I. Christianto)