Will Indonesia's Political Shadow Play Kill Off Wahid?

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A Wahid supporter in Jakarta protests his leader's fate

Indonesia is the home of shadow puppetry, and that's how its elites conduct their politics — behind a screen. The fate of President Abdurrahman Wahid appeared to be sealed Thursday when parliament overwhelmingly voted to censure him for involvement in two corruption scandals, opening the way for impeachment proceedings. That left the world's fourth most populous nation poised for a new round of political turmoil, with supporters of rival parties clashing on the streets, the military speaking openly about taking charge if the politicians can't restore order, and the political, military and business elites locking into a fresh round of backroom intrigue.

The killer blow for Wahid came from his vice president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who leads the largest party in parliament. Although President Wahid announced after a meeting with Megawati Wednesday that he had her support, her party sided with the anti-Wahid majority in parliament Thursday. No surprises there — Megawati won a plurality of votes in the last election and had assumed she was headed for the presidency, only to be denied by Wahid's backroom maneuvering. Although his own Islamic party commands only 10 percent of the seats in parliament, Wahid managed to shut her out with the support of a number of smaller Muslim parties and the party of the former dictator Suharto — and then showed a deft political touch by bringing her in as vice president in order to defuse the anger of her supporters on the streets outside.

Wahid's grip on power, then, was predicated on playing the different power centers off against one another. The scale of his defeat Thursday suggests the strategy may have backfired: On one side of the power equation, he had antagonized the generals by attempting to diminish the power they'd traditionally wielded and accepting independence for East Timor. On the other, he had made enemies of the business and political elite of the Suharto era by pressing corruption charges against the former dictator and his family. To Megawati's allies, he was increasingly being seen as a dangerous and unstable ally.

Wahid had nonetheless served as a dressing on the open wounds of Indonesian politics, and discarding him may plunge the country into an even deeper round of turmoil than the one that dispatched Suharto in 1998. The forces that had sided with Wahid to keep out Megawati are unlikely to be willing to see her succeed the ailing president, and yet her supporters have always believed that by accepting the veep job she was simply biding her time to assume the reins. The military may have its own agendas, particularly in light of the mounting separatist violence in the outlying islands of Aceh and Irian Jaya. Some observers have also suggested that mounting communal violence between Christians and Muslims both in the Moluccas and in the capital itself may also be a sign that elements in the military are fomenting trouble to underline their own claims on power.

The anti-Megawati elements in the elite may yet decide that keeping a politically crippled Wahid in office is preferable to allowing his vice president to take the top job. And some of her own supporters are counseling patience, suggesting that taking the presidency in mid-term with the economy languishing may not be the most prudent course of action. Other players, such as Amien Rais, who leads a rival Muslim party that had initially supported Wahid, have made no secret of their ambitions. And all of Indonesia's political factions are well represented in the parliament of the streets, where things can turn ugly pretty quickly. So, as ever, the power struggle in Jakarta may once again be settled as a form of shadow-puppetry — the street protesters providing a restive audience for the outcomes determined behind the screen.