Indonesians Brace for Bloodshed

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Wahid supporters jump over the Parliament gates in Jakarta

President Abdurrahman Wahid is unlikely to survive an impeachment vote in the Indonesian parliament, where he controls only 10 percent of the seats. But if his supporters decide to contest his ouster in the streets, the latest twist in Indonesia's tortured post-Suharto politics may provoke a bloodbath. And that's exactly what Wahid's supporters were threatening Tuesday, as they poured into Jakarta from his East Java stronghold, bearing machetes, sickles and the implacable conviction that the parliamentary challenge to the President is an assault on the 40-million strong Muslim organization he heads. Their mission: To stop parliament from voting to impeach Wahid on charges of corruption and incompetence, which would be a prelude to his ouster and likely replacement by Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesia's most popular politician, whose party controls some 35 percent of the seats in parliament and who enjoys the all-important support of the military.

While the corruption charges were dismissed on Monday by Indonesia's attorney general (and they pale more than a little by comparison to the hundreds of millions the Suharto regime was accused of pilfering), Wahid's bigger problem is the competence charge. Originally installed by an alliance of Islamic parties and members of Suharto's GOLKAR party to deny Megawati the top job after she finished way ahead of all challengers in the first post-Suharto election, Wahid's erratic leadership alienated most of his allies as the country continued to languish in economic torpor and separatist rebellions threatened to break apart the 13,000-island archipelago that constitutes the world's fourth most-populous nation.

After beating Megawati out for the top spot, Wahid had been canny enough to offer her the Vice Presidency as consolation two years ago. But while his equivocation on dealing with secessionist rebellions — and his decision to bow to Western pressure and decolonize East Timor — angered the generals, Megawati made common cause with them as heiress to the nationalist mantle of her father, Sukarno, who had been Indonesia's first president. Last week, Wahid sought to head off his ouster by offering to transfer most of his authority to Megawati, but the Vice President and her backers appear to have decided to go for broke: She stormed out of the cabinet meeting 15 minutes after Wahid made his offer.

The erosion of Wahid's power was further underlined Monday when his cabinet and the security forces refused to back his attempt to declare a state of emergency. But with his supporters filling Jakarta's streets and threatening violence — and Wahid himself suggesting his home region may secede from the republic if he is ousted — the question becomes how hard he'll fight to stay in power.

One answer lay in the violence that shook East Java Tuesday, as marauding mobs of Wahid supporters trashed GOLKAR offices and even a church. But despite the rage of those who are taking to the streets for Wahid, there is considerable doubt over whether the president can rouse the tens, or even hundreds of thousands, of supporters it may take to tip the scales back in favor of the ailing, half-blind president. And the military is unlikely to tolerate much by way of unrest in the capital, even if Wahid's supporters manage to vent their rage in the provinces.

Wednesday's vote may well raise the temperature on the streets around Indonesia, but Wahid remains unlikely to stay in power. If the impeachment vote is carried — and all indications are that it will be — the chances are that he'll be removed from office sometime in August. But right now, few are seeing Megawati as the answer to Indonesia's continuing economic and ethnic turmoil. Which means that as messy or tranquil as Wahid's ouster may be, it's unlikely to usher in an era of calm.