Indonesia Braces for More Dangerous Living

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It took a few canny tricks to win Abdurrahman Wahid the presidency of Indonesia in the first place, but holding onto it now may be beyond even his legendary political skills. At first glance, Wahid's position Tuesday looked remarkably like that of Philippines president Joseph Estrada two weeks ago, just before his ouster in a palace coup: A parliamentary inquiry has concluded that the president was involved in two recent financial scandals, boosting calls both from within the legislature and on Jakarta's rowdy streets for his impeachment.

The generals fire a warning shot

And the all-powerful military, which underwrote the 30-year dictatorship of ousted president Suharto, issued a blunt warning Tuesday that if the politicians failed to resolve their differences and the turbulence on the streets was allowed to fester, the generals would have no choice but to seize power, once again. In other words, three years after the ouster of Suharto, Indonesia is still living dangerously.

Wahid heads up an Islamic party that controls only 10 percent of the seats in parliament, but managed to beat out the center-left populist Megawati Sukarnoputri — who had won a plurality of the votes in the 1999 presidential election — by cobbling together a coalition comprising Suharto's Golkar party and a number of smaller Islamic parties. He then showed a deft political touch by bringing Megawati in as his vice president, to neutralize the danger posed by her supporters on the streets.

Coming apart at the seams

Almost from the get-go, however, the diminutive and nearly-blind president has struggled to keep his grip on power amid rampant corruption and political infighting, economic turmoil and the increasingly violent fracturing of Indonesia that followed last year's bloodletting in East Timor. Christian-Muslim violence continues to rage in the Moluccas, while the mineral-rich provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya press more forcefully for independence — a scenario as unpalatable to the military as it is to the nationalist Megawati.

Wahid may have proved a deft manipulator of the complex backroom machinations that pervade Indonesian politics, but in the end he was simply a compromise figure sufficiently acceptable to the nation's political, business and military elites to preside over a temporary equilibrium. Now that the students are back on the streets, the currency and stock market are in the doldrums, the provinces are restive, the military is fidgety and the political sharks have smelled blood, the Wahid equilibrium may have been shattered.

But in his wake will come a dangerous vacuum that a number of ambitious politicians and generals may jostle to fill, in a country whose political contests have never exactly been fought by Queensberry rules.