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Indonesia's Presidental Election and Political Future—Transcipt

Moderator: Robert A. Manning, director, Asia Studies, The Council on Foreign Relations
Speaker: Adam Schwarz, adjunct professor, SAIS; consultant and author of "Nation in Waiting"
November 11, 1999
Council on Foreign Relations


Mr. ROBERT A. MANNING (Director, Asia Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations): ...the introduction, the opening quote about go unto Mohammed, we all know the editor and the poet, when Suharto goes, everything will have to be reinvented, and I think as we watch this unfold in Indonesia, watching a huge nation essentially reinvent its entire political culture, I think it inspires a bit of humility on our part as we—and we watch this and offer advice and so on.

With that, I’d like to introduce Adam, who a former Edward R. Murrow Fellow here at the Council, and spent probably more years than he would like wandering around southeast Asia in various capacities, principally for the Far Eastern Economic Review. He’s currently adjunct professor at SAIS and consultant, and author of this book, “Nation in Waiting,” which just came out in a new edition, and also a Council book—some copies, I think, are outside—“Politics of Pro-Suharto Indonesia.” And without further ado, take it away.

Mr. ADAM SCHWARZ: Thanks, Bob. And I thank you all for coming out on a holiday.

I wanted to—I was sort of sitting down the other day trying to figure out how to squeeze into a few minutes what are the range of issues in Indonesia at the moment, and I decided that what I would try to do is just take the scattershot approach, and sort of talk about a handful of issues quite briefly, and then be happy to talk about them at greater length when we have questions afterwards.

Anyway, the few points—I guess there are six points that I wanted to sort of go over. One was the outcome of the elections; the other was—the second’s the role of the military; the third, the role of Islam; four, the problem of separation; five, foreign policy; and lastly, a few words on the short-term agenda for President Wahid, who by the way, for those of you who don’t know, is arriving in Washington this afternoon and is meeting with President Clinton at 11:00 tomorrow morning.

I gather that that is the plan anyway, as of the moment, although it seems to change every six or eight hours or so. I’m told President Clinton delayed his departure to Greece to fit President Wahid in, and now I see in the paper this morning he’s not going to Greece, and maybe they’ll have a longer chat than they might have, which makes more work for you, Bob.

Mr. MANNING: No. He’s got a good supplement.

Mr. SCHWARZ: Anyway, let me start on the elections. First, to restate the obvious, or what I hope is obvious, is that we had a very good outcome, and we had a very good outcome from a process that was murky, at best; and at worst, a process that was almost destined to not produce a good outcome. But in the end, although people weren’t really talking about it ahead of time, in hindsight, there is general agreement that this really was the best outcome available. It avoids the illegitimacy problem that we would have had if former President Habibie had won. And it avoids the religious tension problem that would have been much stronger, had Megawati Sukarnoputri won. President Wahid sort of fits in the middle. He did the wise thing in picking Megawati as his vice president. Again, there was a lot of pressure on him, in the sense that he is sort of a symbolic compromising figure, not to pick a symbolic figure as VP, which Megawati is as well, to pick more of a technocratic, hands-on sort. But, again, I think his instincts were right.

He picked Megawati, and this calmed things down in Java and Bali quite quickly. And to an extent that surprises me, Megawati’s supporters have basically signed on to this. I mean, they’re basically content with this outcome, even more so, I would say, than some of the more hard-line Muslim supporters of President Wahid, who are nervous about Wahid’s commitment to Islamic objectives in the first place, and are doubly worried about having Megawati as vice president, given the frail state of Wahid’s health.

Now the Cabinet that he picked a few days later is short on practical experience, as it would need to be if it was going to be a clean start from the, I guess, the old new order. My sense of what was motivating Wahid with the Cabinet was basically that this reflects what he sees as the key problem facing Indonesia, which is national unity or, put it other way, preventing national disintegration. And you see this in this Cabinet; that it is meant to be a big tent, all-inclusive sort of Cabinet that cuts across parties. It cuts across regions. It cuts across religions. There are particular posts for some of the particularly problematic areas in Aceh and Irian Jaya. He’s trying to rope everybody in, and he’s trying to send out the message that this is not going to be your typical Java-dominated approach to politics.

Now the costs of that approach are that you have difficulty trying to identify who’s the opposition because he tried to rope everybody into the government. And so there’s a little loss of clarity there, which will probably sort itself out over time. And you also have a problem of coordination internally in the Cabinet. How are these folks going to work together? And what’s going to happen, which is inevitably going to happen and probably going to happen quite soon in the case of a number of key ministers, who are going to find themselves in between a government that decides on a particular policy and their own party in parliament that opposes it—which way are they going to go?

Are they going to side with the government and put at risk their future political career with that party, or are they going to side with their party and cost the government a degree of cohesion and effectiveness in implementing these policies?

For that reason, I think that this Cabinet is going to be quite different from earlier Cabinets in Indonesia, which is to say that we’re going to see a lot of turnover. I think we’re going to find individuals in a position where they are going to have to basically decide between doing their job as minister and their own political future. And I would expect a number of them to pick their own political future.

And the last word on the Cabinet and the elections is that all this, obviously, therefore, is a gamble. He’s gambling that this Cabinet that he’s put together is going to help calm down the tensions on national unity and disintegration and separatism and those sorts of things. It’s far too early to say whether that gamble’s going to pay off, but my own view is that it’s a gamble worth taking because I share his view that that is the main issue facing Indonesia, and, in a sense, everything else are details. The role of the military. I think, for me, one of the most interesting things about the role of the military over the last month or so is that it really hasn’t had a role. If we go back to early September, the military looked to be in a particularly strong position politically. It had had successfully spun the whole East Timor debacle as being the problem of Habibie and of the civilian government. The commander of the military, General Wiranto, had positioned himself in such a way that it was the strongly held consensus view that he was going to end up as vice president, regardless of who was going to be president.

And in that period in mid-September, when things looked a bit shaky, it was the military that everybody turned to, to hold this together and keep this on track, and it was thought that the military bloc of seats in this assembly, the MPR that picks the president, would play this kingmaker role. And, in the end, none of that happened. In the end, in a process that remains quite murky, the civilian parties, in a lot of backroom, late-night haggling, came up with their own solution. It’s true that Wiranto did make a last-minute push to become vice president, but he failed. And he failed because a lot of the reformers within the military urged him to pull back from that.

So, in the end, both in the presidential election and the earlier elections, for the speaker of the MPR and in the process leading up to the Cabinet, the military pretty much—I mean, I don’t want to overstate the case, but pretty much stuck to the neutral, on-the-sidelines role that it said it was going to play and that few people believed it would.

Now there has been a lot of criticism about the fact that it’s gotten more representation in the Cabinet that it deserves or that it ought to have, in that there are six figures in this Cabinet with a military background. But I think that is somewhat of a misleading indicator. People have sort of seized on that and suggest that the military does retain this pre-eminent position.

And it does not. The military’s political power is clearly in decline: a civilian as a defense minister for the first time; we have a navy admiral as commander in chief; for the first time an army officer is not in charge of the military.

Now the other side of the coin is that the military does still retain a lot of influence, and it is not inconceivable that that influence could start increasing again. And I’ll get back to this, and we’ll talk about the separatism problem. I think it’s unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future, for the military to get back to a position that it enjoyed in the late Suharto era. But it certainly retains enough influence and power to undermine the effectiveness and to undercut the legitimacy, therefore, of a civilian-led administration. So we’ll call that maybe veto power over the political process. And, therefore, going forward it’s going to be one of President Wahid’s important and very delicate tasks to try to ease the military out of its political role at a pace that is both acceptable to the demands for reform in the society at large and without triggering a backlash from the military.

Very quickly, there’s been a recent reshuffling of the military. From my own view and not having spent a lot of time studying the ins and outs of it, it’s fairly inconclusive. There are things that we thought were going to happen that didn’t happen. There were some reformers that we thought were going to rise up and fill those positions of the two reformers they got moved to the Cabinet. That did not happen. But there aren’t any particularly bad people or people that were considered political hard-liners that have seized those strong positions either.

The third issue that I want to talk about was the role of Islam. After Wahid was elected, many of the headlines around the world recorded that an Islamic cleric had taken over power in Indonesia. One of the optics that I use to look at Indonesia since then, or Wahid in particular since then, is that he’s set out to prove all those headline writers wrong, and he has made it a point to dispel the notion of him as an Islamic cleric or—and I think this is more of a longer-term view—to make headline writers and their readers around the world rethink what they mean by Islamic leaders, which is a very interesting challenge he has allocated to himself.

He has quickly gone out and reached out to the other minority religions in Indonesia. Islam is the claimed religion of 88 percent of Indonesians. But one of his first acts was to visit a Hindu ashram, a Buddhist temple on his visit to Bali four days after he was elected. He has announced he’s going to make overtures to Israel. He’s not gone as far as to say he’s going to open diplomatic ties, but he is going to open trade ties. I think, for me, it’s revealing that I would say that within the Middle East there is a greater appreciation and welcoming of President Wahid’s presidency coming out of Israel than there is from the Arab-Muslim countries in the Middle East.

There’s a lot to say about why that nervousness is there. Let me read you one quote that I just saw in a paper the other day that was in a wire report. It was off of an interview that Wahid had given to an Egyptian columnist, and it was published in the Egyptian paper al-ahram, a semi-official paper, a couple days after he was elected. The quote goes this way: “I am wary of those countries that have decided to implement Sharia, or Islamic law. If you asked me, I would tell you straight away that Israel is closer to my heart than those countries. At least Israel has technology that attracts investment, while those countries have nothing to show for their Sharia law except repulsive poverty and despair.” Now that’s a fairly strong statement for an Islamic leader, to say the least. And you can see why there’s been a nervousness, not only in the Middle East, but also within the more staunchly Muslim quarters of his own support base at home. And, you know, as you can also see from that sort of quote, what Wahid intends to do is nothing short of changing the way people think about Islam and about Islam and democracy and Islam and human rights and to challenge the notion that all these concepts are incompatible.

Fourth issue is the problem of separatism, and this is the one that’s clearly on the front pages in a lot of places, but certainly in Indonesia and what is going to be the most immediate and the biggest challenge for Wahid. Now at a symbolic level, as I was saying earlier, I think Wahid’s election is good for Indonesia in a number of ways, but it’s good in particular for this problem because he is seen as a compromising figure. He’s seen as an inclusive figure. He has unquestioned Muslim credentials, and his record philosophically, he has been one of Indonesia’s staunchest proponents that the ethnic and cultural and linguistic and religious diversity of Indonesia is one of Indonesia’s strengths, and is not something to be despaired about or is not something to be thought of as a divisive aspect of Indonesia. But it is, indeed, what makes Indonesia Indonesia. And that is, of course, a popular idea among minorities of all sorts and also in the outer reaches of the archipelago.

Now he will, I think, be very quick to push forward some of the legislation that was passed under the Habibie administration on decentralization. There are two main laws that were passed in a little over a year. One’s on fiscal autonomy that devolves a greater share of natural resource revenue streams to the provinces. And the other law is on regional or political decentralization. And that is the political equivalent to the fiscal autonomy line that devolves political power down actually to the district level; therefore, they’re trying to leap-frog the provincial level because they’re worried about separatism at the provincial level.

The whole decentralization campaign is a long and complicated issue, and it has its own problems, but that is clearly part of the long-term solution. And these are the right steps to take. He has, in particular, tried to reach out to Aceh and Irian Jaya by including people from those provinces in the Cabinet. He has put an Acehnese just last week—or earlier this week, actually, as the deputy military commander in chief. He’s trying to send out the message that this is a new game, this is a new way of doing business, this is a new way of operating this country. He has quite openly said that Indonesia’s going to move to a more federal system of government. He’s not actually using the term federal because it has, in Indonesia, some bad historical connotations.

But what he has in mind is virtually indistinguishable from a federal system.

And I think, again, that that is the right way to go, and these are the right steps to take. And, long term, I think they ought to be successful. The question that we face today is: Will there be a long term for Indonesia, or at least the Indonesia as we know it in the current borders? And that’s a difficult question. You know, the way I look at it, Indonesia is sort of in a race against itself. Jakarta is trying to sell this new idea, this new notion of governance, and it has pockets of extreme skepticism and distrust out there. And it’s who have been lied to and have been given too many promises that have been broken too many times in the past that aren’t interested in another promise, in another set of commitments for Jakarta. And this is why his most urgent challenge is: How do you get through that distrust and that cynicism in places like Aceh and Irian Jaya, and down the road in places like South Sulawesi and Riau, East Kohmontan; in short, all the resource-rich provinces? The good news is that if anybody can do it, Wahid is, I think, the right person for the job. The bad news is it may be even too late for him in the sense that there has been such a lot of damage done in this notion or this spirit of nationalism that it may not be difficult—or it will be difficult to fix.

Aceh, I think without doubt, is going to be the real problem and certainly the most immediate problem. There was an assumption in Jakarta, and I think by President Wahid as well, that following the elections, when you had a democratically elected, legitimate government president in place who had made a commitment to a more federal system or a greater autonomy for the provinces, who had made a commitment to putting the military gradually under civilian control and then holding them accountable for human-rights abuses, that this would, in itself, take the heat out of this problem in Aceh. And he himself said he was personally going to take charge of the Aceh problem. And I think it came as quite a shock to the elites in Jakarta and to Wahid, in particular, that that did not happen. And, in fact, if anything, the opposite happened; that the Acehnese seized on what they now perceive as some weakness in Jakarta, and they’re pushing very strongly forward on having a referendum that includes in it the option for independence. In fact, they’ve now put a deadline on it of December 4th. You know, like I said now a couple of times, I’m not quite sure how Wahid gets himself out of this. There is a lot of people in Jakarta who think that Wahid should be in Aceh today and not Washington, and I’m one of them. I think that is a more urgent priority for him. And I think he, much more so than Habibie or Suharto before him, does have a feel of the urgency of the problem, but perhaps not yet quite enough appreciation of the problem. And we will see.

The difference between Aceh and East Timor is that, unlike East Timor, Aceh does have a similar shared historical legacy with the rest of Indonesia, with the rest of these islands and provinces that became Indonesia, were previously the Dutch East Indies. And, therefore, a secession of Aceh—and, again, this is different from the independence of East Timor—is likely to have a much stronger and unfortunate demonstration effect on other parts of Indonesia in ways that East Timor did not.

Finally on this point, my own sense—and I, as the days go by, say this with slightly more hope than confidence—is that I do not think Aceh will secede. The Jakarta elite is dead set against it. I do worry that a failure to find a political solution to this problem is going to lead to a renewal of a low-grade military conflict, and that that, in turn, runs the risk of a remilitarization of power in Indonesia more broadly. That’s what I see as the risk more than Aceh going independent.

Foreign policy—and I’ll be quick on this. After a number of years where Indonesia really didn’t have a foreign policy, Wahid, again, has put on his very crowded agenda to establish a foreign or international image presence for Indonesia very quickly, and he’s wasted no time before he visited eight of the nine fellow ASEAN members. He is here today. He’s going to Tokyo and Beijing shortly. He’s got a trip planned to India imminently. It’s a fairly impressive schedule for a blind man who’s had two strokes in the past two years, but clearly he sees this as a very high priority.

Now there’s a number of factors and things that are pushing him in this direction, and let me just run very quickly through four. And it’s not an exhaustive list.

For one, he wants to re-establish Indonesia’s integration with and leading role in Asia, and that includes establishing a better relationship with China. And I think the way we look at where his travels so far have been, it reflects that point.

Two, without taking an overt anti-Western turn, Wahid does want to make it clear that Indonesians’ friendship and support to the West in the past should not be taken for granted. He wants to send the message that there are alternate supplies for technology, including military technology. I think Wahid is fully aware of Indonesia’s dependency on the IFIs and the West in general for help in restarting economic growth. But at the same time he does recognize that nationalist sentiments are on the rise or left still a little bit raw in the aftermath of what happened in East Timor, and that there are some political risks to him of seeming to be too close politically to the West, all the more so because economically they are going to be quite close to the West because they have no choice. And the broad point here is that the message—and I think this is borne out by the fact that he’s going to make his first official trip to China—is that there are other options out there.

Three, Wahid clearly wants economics to be in the forefront of foreign policy. His foreign minister, Aiwi Shibab, has made this point repeatedly. And improving ties with and attracting foreign investment from these other countries that he’s visited or is going to visit, that is clearly a top priority. And, in particular, he’s aiming this message at the diaspora of Indonesian-Chinese around the region.

Fourth, finally, and as I mentioned earlier talking about Islam, Wahid wants to use foreign policy as a way to change the way the international community views Islam. His broad goal is to make Indonesia a religiously tolerant, democratically ruled nation that happens to have a Muslim majority, and he intends to show off that model and make showing off that model part of Indonesian foreign policy.

Finally, the short-term agenda. Again very briefly, we’ve basically already touched on the main points: pushing forward on the decentralization program in order to undercut separatist sentiment, forming a new civil-military relationship throughout all levels of government, right down through the military’s territorial structure; establishing a new and different profile for Indonesia on regional and world stages. And the one that I have not mentioned, and I’ll just talk about it very briefly, is obviously crucial as well: getting the economic reform agenda back on track. I won’t say a lot on this; among other reasons, I’m out of time. But the talks with the IMF and the World Bank are back on track. He has made appeals to businesses, foreign and domestic, on a daily basis. He has committed; that is, a promise to shore up the legal system to tackle corruption, publish the audits of the Bank Bali case, promise to speed up bank recaps. He’s saying all the right things, and they’re all things that need to be done.

But the real test for Indonesia going forward is whether Wahid can bring political stability to Indonesia and, again, whether that Indonesia remains the Indonesia that we know today. If he can deliver on those two items, capital will return to Indonesia, and it will be able, with a little forbearing from the creditor communities around the world, to grow its way out of the economic hole it’s in. But it isn’t going to happen overnight, and I think one thing that Indonesia needs from the international community right now is probably a little patience.

I will stop there and answer any questions.

Mr. MANNING: Thanks, Adam.

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