Global Policy Forum

Scandals Sully Indonesian Leader's Reform Image


By Calvin Sims

New York Times
November 8, 2000

To some Indonesians, one sign that not enough has changed under President Abdurrahman Wahid came when the police arrested his masseur on charges of bilking the government of $4 million.

Mr. Wahid took office here a year ago promising to end the flagrant corruption and cronyism that was rampant under the dictatorial rule of former President Suharto. But criticism is growing that Mr. Wahid has done little to change the country's notoriously corrupt bureaucracy and legal system, and in an opinion poll released on Monday 65 percent of those surveyed said they favored a special legislative session to impeach Mr. Wahid.

No one expects that to happen soon, and Mr. Wahid appears unworried. "Go ahead, let them call a special session," he told a Muslim congregation on Friday. `'I never wanted to be president anyway." What is perhaps most troubling to Indonesians is that Mr. Wahid himself is now embroiled in an embarrassing string of scandals that have damaged his credibility and hurt efforts to establish a rule of law in this young democracy.

The arrest of the masseur, Alip Agung Sowondo, has been one of the more tantalizing scandals, and it has had special resonance because in this deeply mystical country he also served as a spiritual adviser to the president and consequently had enormous status. Administrators of the government logistics agency employees' fund have said Mr. Suwondo duped them by using the president's name to obtain the money. Mr. Wahid has denied authorizing the withdrawal.

Mr. Wahid has also come under fire for failing to disclose what he called a "personal gift" of $2 million from the sultan of Brunei early this year. And the president is facing mounting criticism for a secret meeting last month with Mr. Suharto's youngest son, Hutomo Mandala Putra, who has been convicted of fraud and has asked Mr. Wahid for clemency. Days before his meeting with Mr. Hutomo, Mr. Wahid vowed publicly not to pardon him.

Mr. Wahid was elected president last year in Indonesia's first democratic transfer of power, after nearly three decades under Mr. Suharto's iron rule. A highly cultured man known for his intellect and humor, Mr. Wahid has commanded wide respect in Indonesia and abroad, especially for his support of democratic principles and racial and religious tolerance. The president, who has suffered two strokes and is virtually blind, loves to tell jokes. He said recently, "I am the first president to read the newspapers even though I'm blind." He is also known for making outlandish pronouncements that he later contradicts or refuses to justify.

Lawmakers are demanding that Mr. Wahid appear before Parliament to answer questions about his involvement in the various financial scandals, but so far the president has refused, setting the stage for a heated political showdown with the legislature, which has the power to unseat Mr. Wahid. "If it is proven that the president was involved in the fraud, it's the end of his government," said Amien Rais, chairman of the main legislative body. Mr. Rais vowed to convene a special session to impeach Mr. Wahid if it is shown that he committed any wrongdoing.

Political analysts said the scandals were a severe blow to Mr. Wahid's reputation and a major distraction from the more pressing issues that Mr. Wahid should be addressing, including a crippling economic crisis, increasing urban violence, growing separatist movements in several provinces, and a rebellious military. "The president talks a good game when it comes to democracy, human rights and religious tolerance," said Kusnanto Anggoro, a researcher for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Jakarta-based research organization. "But Indonesia cannot survive as a nation on Wahid's words alone. In his first year in office, Wahid has failed to back up those words with even one single institutional reform."

Many foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, have sharply criticized Indonesia for failing to control militia groups linked to the military. Those groups are accused of inciting civil unrest on the island of Timor, where three United Nations workers were killed in September. "The world has grown tired of Wahid's one-liners," Mr. Anggoro said. "They are telling Indonesia, `Hey, your president isn't funny anymore.' " Indonesia recently came close to losing nearly $5 billion in aid from major donors, who were upset that Jakarta had not moved fast enough to quell violence and to undertake structural reforms. The economic aid — a mix of loans and grants from Japan, the World Bank and others — will help Indonesia offset a budget deficit that next year is expected to reach $6 billion because of weak foreign investment and other economic activity.

Arbi Sanit, a professor of political science at the University of Indonesia, said the scandals surrounding Mr. Wahid would make it even harder for his government to fight corruption. "How can Wahid convince the Parliament to pass the legal reforms needed to crack down on corruption when it appears that his hands are not all that clean either?" Mr. Sanit said. Wimar Witoelar, a former talk- show host who was recently appointed the president's chief spokesman, said in an interview that Mr. Wahid's first year in office had been full of "misunderstandings and disappointments," but that he believes that the administration still enjoys widespread support among Indonesians.

Mr. Witoelar said that expectations of what could be accomplished during the first term of Indonesia's first democratically elected president had been set unfairly high. Regarding the scandals surrounding the president, Mr. Witoelar said that while Mr. Wahid was pleased that his masseur had been caught, Mr. Wahid was in no way involved in the fraud. The spokesman said that the gift from the sultan of Brunei was used to help needy people and that Mr. Wahid had learned a valuable lesson in modern management techniques. "We could try to teach the president to speak and handle things in the conventional way, but I'm not sure we have enough time to do that or that it would be very effective because we have so much to do in a short period," Mr. Witoelar said.

But Mr. Wahid's meeting with Mr. Suharto's son has been extremely difficult for many Indonesians to accept. An editorial in The Jakarta Post said that the president's meeting with Mr. Hutomo, who is also known as Tommy Suharto, was "highly irregular," even though a year under Mr. Wahid's presidency had taught Indonesians "to expect not only the unexpected but the inconceivable."

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