Indonesia Poised for New Round of Turmoil

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Supporters of Indonesia's President Wahid take their message to the streets

Post-Suharto Indonesia, Take 3… Although it was more than three years ago now that Indonesians ended the 30-year tenure of the dictator Suharto, the world’s fourth most-populous nation has yet to emerge from the turbulent political vacuum that followed. That much was clear Monday when Indonesia's parliament voted for a second time to impeach President Abdurrahman Wahid on corruption allegations, opening the way for impeachment proceedings to begin within six weeks. The ailing cleric now appears politically doomed, but the consequences of his ouster could further deepen rather than resolve Indonesia’s political crisis.

President Wahid, popularly known as "Gus Dur," commands only 10 percent of the seats in parliament, leaving him easy prey to the political rivals who had previously helped him keep the more popular Megawati Sukarnoputri out of the presidency. In order to defuse popular anger at the time, Wahid had given Megawati the vice presidency, thereby forging a coalition in which his grip on power was always going to be tenuous. Now his rivals are withdrawing their support in what observers believe is mostly a power-play to get rid of an ailing president blasted by his critics for arrogance and incompetence.

But Gus Dur won't go quietly. Tens of thousands of his supporters have flocked to the capital, Jakarta, in a bid to stop moves to oust their leader, and the most ominous among them may be the massive militia that bears the ominous title "Brave Movement to Die Defending Gus Dur." Some of Wahid's rivals, of course, are supported by militias of their own — most notably the ambitious parliamentary speaker Amien Rais, who originally backed Wahid to keep out Megawati, but now demands his resignation — raising tensions on the streets of Jakarta to boiling point.

Even if he survives impeachment, President Wahid is already a lame duck. But the question of his successor remains far from clear: Vice President Megawati is the country's most popular politician and is constitutionally well-placed to simply assume the reins if Gus Dur is ousted. But Rais clearly has ambitions of his own, and the loose alliance of Islamic parties and former Suharto supporters that kept her out of the top job last time may not be in a hurry to install her. It's not even clear that she wants the top job right now, when increasingly volatile ethnic and religious tensions in Aceh, Irian Jaya, Ambon, the Moluccas and elsewhere are threatening to break apart the archipelago nation. Meanwhile, the economy languishes in the doldrums as foreign investors steer clear of Jakarta's political instability.

One thing Megawati does have going for her besides more popular support than any of her rivals, is the backing of the military top brass. Having kept Suharto in power for three decades and then engineered his ouster when street protests threatened chronic instability, the military remains the ultimate arbiter of power in Jakarta. And while they're staying out of the parliamentary fray, the generals have warned the politicians to keep their differences off the streets. While there are no fears of an imminent coup, a long-term bout of political instability at the center amid an unraveling in the provinces would certainly raise the temptation among the generals to reassert a more direct grip on power. And right now it's hard to imagine any of the alternatives to Wahid escaping the chronic instability and infighting that has dogged his reign.

Wahid himself, of course, was always something of a compromise candidate, an interim figure chosen to preside over a fractious field in which no single leader had emerged with enough strength to claim the political spoils of Suharto's ouster. Now, it appears that his interim may be coming to an end, and Indonesia's politicians are preparing for yet another year of living dangerously.

With reporting by Tim McGirk/Hong Kong