Tue, 15 Jan 2002

'Megawati must be tough on Akbar'

Yogita Tahil Ramani and Kurniawan Hari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

President Megawati Soekarnoputri skipped the opening ceremony of Matori Abdul Djalil's National Awakening Party (PKB) congress on Monday, averting a worsening of the already tense relations between two rival factions from the Nahdlatul Ulama-based party.

Her absence also spared her from being placed in the same category as former president Soeharto, who, in his 32 years as leader, often intervened in the internal affairs of political parties and purged politicians who challenged his authority.

Matori said Megawati had decided not to open PKB's congress to allow rival factions -- the Matori and Alwi Shihab camps -- to mend their fences and reconcile.

"The President told me that for the sake of possible islah (reconciliation) between the two PKB factions, she would be skipping the opening of our congress. She also conveyed apologies for her absence," Matori told over 1,500 participants of the congress, held at Hotel Borobudur in Central Jakarta.

Megawati's presence at the congress would have been tantamount to backing Matori's PKB faction, a move that many political analysts believed would only worsen relations between the two camps.

Matori said to avoid giving the same impression, Megawati would not show up either at the PKB national congress of Alwi Shihab's faction in Yogyakarta from Jan. 17 through Jan. 19.

"I assure you President Megawati will not show up either at the extraordinary congress held by the other PKB camp (the Alwi Shihab faction)," Matori said.

Founded in July 1999 with majority support from the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country's largest Muslim organization with over 40 million members, PKB split into two groups in July 2001 after a faction led by then chairperson Matori Abdul Djalil supported and attended the Special Session of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR). The session dismissed then president Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid, the founder of PKB.

Matori's decision irked most PKB leaders and representatives in MPR, who immediately sought his expulsion from the party. Gus Dur, in his capacity as chief of PKB board of patrons, later fired Matori and installed then foreign minister Alwi Shihab as the new PKB chairman, resulting in the current dualism in the party's leadership.

In his opening speech at his three-day congress on Monday, Matori expressed conviction that his faction was "clearly respected and accepted by Megawati's leadership."

"They (the Alwi-led PKB camp) downgraded me, but the government has remained silent. This means that I am respected. The point here is, let the dogs bark ... (we) will move on," Matori told his members.

Amid strong rumors that Matori had pulled out all stops to lobby military officials and ministers to attend the opening of his congress, the only minister who did attend the ceremony was Minister of Health Achmad Sujudi.

Matori's camp claimed that the congress had won the support of around 300 district chapters from 30 provinces.

Earlier, PKB legislator from the Matori camp Agus Suflihat Mahmud said that the main purpose of the extraordinary congress would be to assess Matori's leadership, especially the prelude to the split of the country's fourth-largest party.

During Monday's opening speech, Matori asked his party members to evaluate him objectively.

"Did you perceive my presence at the MPR Special Session, which brought down president Abdurrahman Wahid, as a personal, ambitious move, or one that reflected my concern for PKB's welfare and the welfare of our country?"

"If you see that I went beyond our party's guidelines, please do not hesitate to bring me down."

He also invited members of the Alwi-led PKB camp, like A.S. Hikam and former defense minister Mahfud MD to join his camp.

The Alwi faction received much-needed support on Sunday when a group of influential Muslim leaders from Langitan Islamic Boarding School in Tuban, East Java, pledged their support for the faction.

Muslim leaders said that most PKB participants remained solid under the Alwi-Abdurrahman leadership.

NU, which Abdurrahman chaired for years, has quietly placed its support behind the Alwi-Abdurrahman camp.

NU chairman, Hasyim Muzadi, however, said that he had given up in his efforts to reconcile the two camps and had let all NU members who attended choose one of the two.