Indonesia’s Presidential Crisis
Indonesia’s Presidential Crisis
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Briefing 5 / Asia

Indonesia’s Presidential Crisis

The Abdurrahman Wahid presidency was dealt a devastating blow by the Indonesian parliament (DPR) on 1 February 2001 when it voted 393 to 4 to begin proceedings that could end with the impeachment of the president.

I. Overview

The Abdurrahman Wahid presidency was dealt a devastating blow by the Indonesian parliament (DPR) on 1 February 2001 when it voted 393 to 4 to begin proceedings that could end with the impeachment of the president.[fn]Although Indonesians often use the term' impeachment', the process does not involve a trial but an evaluation by the MPR that the president has violated the constitution or the 'National Will' embodied in MPR decrees and should, therefore, be dismissed.  For a detailed discussion of this process, see pp. 5-6 below.Hide Footnote  This followed the walk-out of 48 members of Abdurrahman's own National Awakening Party (PKB). Under Indonesia's presidential system, a parliamentary 'no-confidence' motion cannot bring down the government but the recent vote has begun a drawn-out process that could lead to the convening of a Special Session of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) - the body that has the constitutional authority both to elect the president and withdraw the presidential mandate.

The most fundamental source of the president's political vulnerability arises from the fact that his party, PKB, won only 13 per cent of the votes in the 1999 national election and holds only 51 seats in the 500-member DPR and 58 in the 695-member MPR. The PKB is based on the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a traditionalist Muslim organisation that had previously been led by Gus Dur, as the president is usually called. Although the NU's membership is estimated at more than 30 million, the PKB's support is drawn mainly from the rural parts of Java, especially East Java, where it was the leading party in the general election.

Gus Dur's election as president occurred in somewhat fortuitous circumstances. The front-runner in the presidential race was Megawati Soekarnoputri, whose secular-nationalist Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) won 34 per cent of the votes in the general election. Megawati had been led to believe that Gus Dur would support her bid for the presidency but she was considered too secular by the Central Axis, a loose grouping of Muslim parties headed by Amien Rais (now Speaker of the MPR), who supported Gus Dur as the lesser evil. When the incumbent president, B. J. Habibie, withdrew, many of his supporters in the Golkar party also transferred their backing to Gus Dur, thus securing his victory. Despite the decades-long rivalry between Gus Dur's traditionalist NU and Amien's modernist Muhammadiyah, Amien seems to have calculated that this was the best strategy to enhance Muslim influence in the government. Meanwhile, despite her sense of being 'betrayed', Megawati accepted the vice presidency.

The vote against the president on 1 February followed a long period of tension between the president and the DPR. Despite the high hopes that accompanied the election of Abdurrahman, his government has not yet laid a firm basis for economic recovery.  Corruption in government is still the norm, ethnic and religious conflict has been common, and separatist movements continue to be active in Aceh and Irian Jaya. While the perception that the Abdurrahman government has failed to make progress is widespread in political circles, it is also understood that many of the challenges are beyond the powers of any president to resolve quickly. In these circumstances, the growing demand that he resign or be impeached is driven less by policy failures than by the behaviour of Gus Dur himself.

The crisis seems unlikely to be resolved quickly.  As long as it continues, the government will not be able to focus fully on the policies and reforms necessary for political stability and economic recovery. Moreover, the struggle between the factions of the political elite in Jakarta is spilling over into the society at large.  The danger of physical violence looms larger as both sides mobilise their supporters. The main roads in Jakarta have been regularly clogged since January by pro- and anti-Abdurrahman demonstrators but so far major violence has been avoided. Similar demonstrations have taken place outside the capital and in some places have resulted in destruction of property, especially in East Java where support for the president is particularly strong.

This paper examines the possible consequences and outcomes of the political crisis and the danger of spreading violence. It also notes the need for constitutional reform.

Jakarta/Brussels, 21 February 2001

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