A New Day Dawns

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Like most dictators, Indonesia's Suharto sought the predictable. Peasants would be handed scripted questions before the general dropped in on their fields for a photo-op. Every five years, his Golkar party calibrated its winning tally in sham elections to the percentage point. Those who dared speak against the old man could expect to be clapped in irons.Suharto's fall could not but unhinge things. His heir, B.J. Habibie, was slapped around like a rag doll by the ensuing whirlwind: for 17 months the stumbling former engineer led the country from crisis to crisis, from student protests to ethnic killings to the torching of East Timor. But merely replacing him has not returned Indonesia to a reliable script. By rights, Abdurrahman Wahid--the man described over and over as a frail, half-blind cleric--should not have assumed the presidency last week. That prerogative belonged to Megawati Sukarnoputri--housewife, daughter of the mercurial Sukarno, icon of democracy, the people's choice. She would have posed a fine counterpoint to her nemesis, Suharto; she would have returned to the presidential palace some of the glamour wielded by her father, the man who lashed together the modern Republic of Indonesia. But this Indonesia--crippled by debt, pulled taut by regional resentments, riven by religious and ethnic divides that are only drawn more starkly as 204 million citizens come to grips with an unforgiving future--remains a land unable to adapt easily to the rules of nationhood. The road ahead is as unclear as ever. Perhaps it's best that a blind man now leads the way.

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Few other than Wahid saw his victory coming. Until the morning of the Oct. 20 election, observers generally pictured the race as mano-a-mano between Megawati and Habibie. When the latter dropped out, shamed when parliament rejected his defense of his stormy tenure, the way seemed clear for Megawati to inherit the throne. That she seemed to think of the presidency as hers--ostensibly because her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) won 34% of the vote in last June's elections, but perhaps also by birthright--irked Wahid, who had earlier pledged to support her candidacy. He claimed that, as a democratic gesture, he needed to contest the election. Those who backed him--a constellation of Muslim parties, the army and nearly all of Golkar's delegates--were more concerned about the rough-hewn populism of the PDI-P, whose red-clad partisans thronged the streets of the capital. The opposing impulses put Wahid, who is popularly known as Gus Dur, easily over the top, with 373 votes to Megawati's 313.

The outcome underscored how critical Megawati is to post-New Order politics. That night thousands of her supporters fought troops blocking access to the national assembly building; at least 29 people were injured, and a car bomb killed two. (Those guys didn't need to spray us with tear gas, sighed one demonstrator. We were crying already.) The next day Wahid's National Awakening Party (PKB) nominated her for Vice President. Other factions, realizing that the PDI-P's poll victory had to be rewarded somehow, quickly lined up behind the choice. (According to Golkar insiders, armed forces chief General Wiranto wanted the vice-presidency but withdrew his candidacy angrily when Golkar officials could not guarantee the party's votes.) Megawati's win calmed the situation, in part because many of her supporters are convinced that the 59-year-old Wahid--who suffered two strokes last year--will not be able to serve out his five-year term. Outside observers were cheered, too, by the fact that the new government would carry at least some of Megawati's popular mandate--and her party's majority in parliament.

Yet she and Wahid--novices at governing--aren't likely to dominate the political scene as did their predecessors. Unlike Suharto and Habibie, Gus Dur likes to delegate authority and likes people with initiative, says political analyst Mohammad Hikam in Jakarta. He will choose aides and ministers that have the same tolerant view. Famously inclusive, Wahid is likely to draw from an ideologically broad spectrum of candidates. Among those being mentioned for cabinet positions are a trio of respected members of Megawati's economic team: Laksamana Sukardi, Kwik Kian Gie and Tjahyo Kumolo. Alwi Shihab, a PKB chairman and a former Harvard University professor, seems headed for the Foreign Ministry. Even two of Suharto's better-known technocrats, former finance ministers Fuad Bawazier and Mar'ie Muhammad, are under consideration.

The governing system already boasts a healthy division of spoils. Opposition leader Amien Rais heads the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), the body that elected Wahid and that will be responsible for enacting the constitutional changes needed to keep Indonesia on the democratic path. Tough Golkar pol Akbar Tandjung controls the elected lower house of parliament, where the arm-twisting skills he showed last week (many in the party say he was responsible for destroying Habibie's candidacy) should prove useful. And new political reforms promise to even out the power imbalance among the different branches. The once-omnipotent president has been limited to two terms and can no longer single-handedly appoint military commanders or grant political pardons (which must be decided in tandem with a more independent judiciary). Cabinet posts and ambassadorships will have to be approved by parliament, which will also be able to override the president's rejection of particular bills. And legislation now under debate would allow regional parliaments to elect their own governors. We can expect a much more decentralized government under Gus Dur, says political science professor Maswadi Rauf. The new President may have no other choice.

Wahid, after all, confronts a truly new order. What transpired last week--albeit with a bit of Javanese machination and another bout of violence--was precisely that transition to democracy that had seemed so unlikely throughout the year-and-a-half since Suharto fell from power. You have the full range of moderate, largely secular reformists in the government, which gives a real popular base, says a senior White House official. This is about as good an outcome as one could have hoped for. At one time or another each of the four civilian leaders who have emerged this month--Wahid, Megawati, Rais, Tandjung--had a place in Suharto's New Order. They now stand firmly outside that structure, as does the government they lead. That doesn't mean that the endemic corruption and militaristic culture that marked Suharto's reign have been suddenly eradicated. But for all those inside the parliament building last week who thought the venerable Wahid could not possibly win, many more outside were convinced that Indonesia would not even make it this far.

Wahid himself is as unlikely as his victory. He bears an illustrious--some would say feudal--pedigree. Born in East Java in 1940, he is the son of Sukarno's minister of religious affairs and grandson of the founder of the Nahdlatul Ulama (N.U.), now Indonesia's largest Muslim social organization with 30 million members. (His grandmother hailed from the royal family of Solo--the same line as Suharto's late wife, Siti Hartinah.) The lineage led him, after high school in Yogyakarta (where he had to repeat a year after goofing off reading books and watching movies), to a distinguished religious education. In Java he attended pesantren, Islamic boarding schools. Next he shipped out to Cairo's historic Al-Azhar University and then to the University of Baghdad, studying religion at the first and literature at the second but graduating from neither. When Wahid returned to Indonesia in 1970, first to teach in his hometown of Jombang and then, in 1984, to take over the N.U., he wielded a moral authority that belied his years. Even today supplicants bow and kiss his hand, and some ascribe to him mystical powers.

His grooming does not seem that of a firebrand. But even during his Islamic schooling Wahid displayed a maverick side. He delved into Western philosophy--Plato, Marx, Durkheim--and developed a passion for classical music. (He speaks Dutch, Arabic and English fluently as well as Indonesian.) As he matured, he learned to blend the conventional and the radical. When he removed the N.U. from formal politics in 1984, for instance, he actually transformed the group into a major force. By directing the network of N.U.-run pesantren to focus on rural development--health care, education, family planning, new farming methods--he also bred a cadre of sometimes radical rural activists. Suharto, to his chagrin, could not directly assault that power base because of its massive size and praiseworthy aims. The leeway freed Wahid to become one of the New Order's most articulate critics, insistent upon the need for a democratic, civilian and, importantly, secular government.

In many ways Wahid makes for an unusual leader of the N.U., a group that appeals largely to the millions of Javanese peasants whose Islam mixes with more ancient folk beliefs and rituals. By all accounts he is agile in both Western thought and the baroque curlicues of Javanese politicking. His support is Muslim, yet he loudly champions the rights of Indonesia's Christians and other minorities. (His election has raised hopes that the world's most populous Muslim country may establish diplomatic relations with Israel, which he visited in 1994.) He arranged to marry his wife, Siti Nuriyah, through her father, then encouraged her to finish her master's degree in women's studies at the University of Indonesia.

His followers need exactly this mix of opposites. For many, Wahid serves as a bridge to the future. By straddling the worlds of intellectual and farmer, politician and priest, he has tempered the modernity that has whipsawed rural Indonesia in the past decade. Around the world, believers ask the same thing of Islam--to provide a haven against painful, often mystifying changes. This particular leader, however, insists that his flock not barricade itself behind a Muslim identity, and instead recognize the tolerance and openness implicit within Islam itself.

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