So Much for Stability

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JEFFREY A. WINTERSThere is a tendency in Indonesian political affairs to mistake patience for passivity. Last week's massive show of dissent during the special session of the People's Consultative Assembly demonstrated once again that even long intervals of quiet in Indonesia can be deceiving. After months of relative calm, foreign governments and investors began to push scenarios predicting that the status quo might linger, that there would be more continuity than change. Insiders, too, were lulled into such thinking. President B.J. Habibie and leaders in the Golkar political machine started believing their own spin that they really were Indonesia's new reformers and not simply desperate leftovers from a corrupt and violent Suharto dictatorship.Then, with little warning, the trance was broken as hundreds of thousands of students and other protesters poured into the streets, the only genuine venue for democratic expression they have. The movement was vastly larger than the demonstrations that forced Suharto from office last May. The limits of patience had been reached. The problem at the center of the turmoil was fairly clear. The de jure government led by Habibie and represented by the Assembly--known by its Indonesian acronym MPR--has operated without a shred of legitimacy since Suharto's fall. Meanwhile, the country's de facto leaders, the ones supported across Indonesian society, had no place and no voice in an MPR session that was supposed to prepare the way for free and fair elections next May. The MPR itself was the child of a 1997 election that was typical of Suharto's New Order. The people had been cheated, and the opposition undercut. The problem last week was obvious: Could an illegitimate MPR make legitimate decisions? According to the students and their supporters, the MPR could do so only if it made decisions that also dug its own political grave.As the protests intensified in the streets, members of the MPR droned on inside parliament. They granted piecemeal concessions to the forces assembling outside but still did not fully grasp the political implications of the moment. Disunited and reacting to wildfire rumors, the delegates lurched forward and backward but ultimately went nowhere. The armed forces, which are politically weaker now than at any other time since the early 1950s, are not able to dictate the terms for restoring stability short of unleashing a wave of violence. Reliable sources in Jakarta say that army colonels phoned the country's four leading opposition figures--Megawati Sukarnoputri, Abdurrahman Wahid, Amien Rais and Sultan Hamengkubuwono--and warned them that unless the protests subsided, a military junta would be installed. But martial law and a military government could not possibly rule Indonesia with stability, nor hold it together geographically.PAGE 1  |  
These four figures, who command the loyalty of the vast majority of Indonesia's population, appeared together on the first day of the session. But their meeting and the declaration they issued signaled a wide gap between the aspirations of the protesters and the reluctance of the opposition leaders to push Habibie and the Suharto-engineered MPR. The protesters say the MPR is illegitimate and should be abolished. The opposition four agree but say that following constitutional procedures matters more. The protesters want the Habibie government disbanded and an opposition presidium to take over until the national elections. The four want Habibie to stay in place as a caretaker, with the sole mandate of preparing the country for elections that Habibie and Golkar cannot possibly win in an untainted vote.The remarkable meeting of the opposition four and the challenge they present to the status quo resonate deeply in Indonesian history. After Japanese occupation forces surrendered in August 1945, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta, two of the country's most prominent nationalist leaders, hesitated to declare the country's independence. Frustrated students kidnapped Sukarno and would not release him until he scribbled such a declaration on a piece of paper and agreed to announce it at an impromptu ceremony. Half a century later, student leaders have once again taken the initiative by practically kidnapping Amien Rais and forcing the meeting of the four leaders and their declaration before the press.It remains to be seen whether the throngs in the streets will prevail in forcing the creation of a presidium government. If that occurs, it might involve a coalition that includes the current heads of the MPR factions together with the opposition four. That would change the political dynamics in Indonesia in the run-up to the May elections. But even if Habibie, Golkar and the current military leadership manage to hang on until then, there should be no doubt that their days at the helm of the Indonesian state are numbered.Jeffrey A. Winters, professor of political economy at Northwestern University in the U.S., is the author of Power in Motion: Capital Mobility and the Indonesian State  |  2