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Indonesia's Kingmaker (Int'l Edition)


International -- Asian Cover Story

Indonesia's Kingmaker (int'l edition)

Army chief Wiranto has brokered a deal to end the impasse. It means Megawati's in, Habibie's out--and Wiranto is in charge

He speaks softly but wields great power, a general whom Indonesia's soldiers follow and whom civilians respect--and fear. He is central to Indonesia's political drama and its eventual economic recovery. Yet throughout the tumult of Indonesia's legislative elections in June and their aftermath, no one knew how Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Wiranto would act. Would he stand aloof from the post-election jockeying for President? Or would he preserve the Army's traditional support of Golkar, the party that backed Suharto, and his successor, B.J. Habibie?

Well, the General has finally intervened. On July 7 and 8, Wiranto summoned his top generals to a "commanders call," according to army officers who attended and government officials briefed later. The meetings took place at Indonesia's Armed Forces Headquarters, a sprawl of barracks and bunkers on the leafy outskirts of Jakarta. Several provincial military commanders were invited, as well as five of Wiranto's top generals based in Jakarta. Excluded from the table were those generals who favor an Islamic state and back President Habibie. The agenda: to hammer out plans for Indonesia's next government.

Wiranto's muscular men in green uniforms deliberated for two days, then granted their commander full support to put together a coalition government--and whatever role in it he chooses. The most likely lineup expected to be announced in the next few weeks: popular opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri as President, and Wiranto himself as the truly powerful Vice-President. And current President Habibie? He's out at the end of his term. Wiranto, according to the sources, even secured the blessing of ex-President Suharto. Wiranto and his aides are now trying to cement the details of the deal, which could still run into trouble if various fractious parties--and Habibie himself--don't fall into line. The final vote count is due on July 21. At this moment, Wiranto's plan has the edge.

It's not exactly democracy. It will surely disgust many voters. But with the military an always-omnipotent force in Indonesian politics, having the most powerful general in the country emerge at the helm could result in the most stable government Indonesia could hope for. After all, the economy has embarked on the first stages of a recovery that needs a stable environment to thrive. And since none of the five major parties was on the way to winning a clear mandate, a shaky coalition looked likely.

Even the popular Megawati, whose Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle was leading all others with roughly 35% of the vote, has not garnered enough to form a solid majority. And a complicated electoral process threatened to cheat her of the presidency during elections in October. "If Megawati is not going to be President, there's going to be chaos in this country," says Jusuf Wanandi, director of the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), a Jakarta think tank. "Thirty million people on Java are willing to fight."

STUDENTS' O.K.? That's why Wiranto stepped into the power vacuum, offering himself as compromise candidate and kingmaker. A key concern of the generals was whether Megawati would agree to the deal. Also at issue was whether Indonesians--particularly students who want the military out of politics--would support it. Wiranto did not stand for office himself, but the military has at least 38 seats in the legislature. Megawati knows no politician can be President without the military's backing. And even students hint they would accept the compromise if it resulted in a Megawati presidency. Says Pius Lustrilanang, who led a radical student group before running for office under Megawati: "I don't like it. But the power between pro-Habibie and pro-Megawati forces is quite balanced, so finally it rests on who the military wants."

So the generals decided, in a process they later called democratic, that the stability of Indonesia was best assured with their top man in a strong role. Wiranto should be either President or Vice-President, and he should ask Megawati--as the biggest vote-getter in the election--to assume the other role. Talks with Megawati about the arrangement were still under way as of July 14. The popular daughter of Indonesia's first President, Sukarno, she has been silent since polls closed on June 7. Moderate Islamic leader Abdurrahman Wahid, whose party was expected to come in third, has agreed to announce the new lineup once it is solidified.

Wiranto has also sought the blessing of his mentor, Suharto. Despite his ouster from power, Suharto still wields considerable influence among Indonesia's elite. A former general, Suharto's word is still heeded in the upper reaches of the military. And under Indonesia's age-old custom of patronage, Wiranto still seeks Suharto's advice before taking major decisions, according to his aides. "When you've held absolute power for 33 years, you don't lose it all in just one year," says a finance industry source also close to Suharto.

So at their meeting on July 8, Suharto gave Wiranto his blessing to proceed. In return, Wiranto gave Suharto a tacit assurance that he would be pardoned, and may not even stand trial, for the three decades of corruption under his rule. Wiranto and Suharto, with the studied calm and low voices characteristic of the Javanese elite, also reached an understanding that no vigorous attempts to uncover Suharto's billions would be made, according to an army officer familiar with the discussion. Wiranto then asked what should be done about Habibie. Suharto quietly indicated that Habibie should not stay on for a second term, according to the insiders.

If Wiranto pulls off this arrangement, it's still unclear whether he will emerge as a strongman in the mold of Suharto or actually solidify Indonesia's fledgling democracy. Much depends on the acquiescence of Habibie, who has indicated he might not accept being left out of the coalition. Habibie, like Wiranto, has long had a close relationship with Suharto.NOT NEUTRAL. But it is Wiranto who is most like Suharto. Suharto recruited him as his aide-de-camp in 1989 and promoted him to armed forces commander-in-chief shortly before riots forced his resignation. "Wiranto feels Suharto brought him up to commander-in-chief," observes Harold Crouch, an Indonesia expert at Australian National University in Canberra. "This was not just a purely professional [relationship]. Wiranto knew the children and the wife. He was part of the extended family."

Those who know Wiranto describe him as a man who plays his cards close to his chest and often refuses to answer questions directly. Indeed, like Suharto at the beginning of his career, little is known about Wiranto. He was unavailable to be interviewed for this article. But he has said that the military would not remain neutral in the election, given the military's seats in the legislature. His aides say he backs a policy of gradually separating the military from its traditional "dual function" as a political and military force. "We want to share power. Wiranto strongly believes in that," says Lieutenant General Bambang Yudhoyono, a close associate.

Wiranto's "red and white" faction is one of two in the Indonesian army. Its nationalist vision sees Indonesia as a secular state with no official role for Islam. The other faction, associated with retired generals Hartono and Feisal Tandjung, is "green" and supports a greater role for Islam.

Wiranto harbors no illusions about the Indonesian military's poor human-rights record. But his aides say he does not believe in investigating abuses by the military, particularly in Aceh, East Timor, or at the Trisakti University campus where four students were shot by snipers in May, 1998. Wiranto says an investigation would only destabilize the military at a time when he's trying to hold it together. But critics say Wiranto is merely avoiding a Pandora's box that would implicate his loyal generals. "He doesn't want to let investigations get too far," says a Western diplomat.POLICY MYSTERY. Yet Wiranto reportedly became outraged on at least two occasions in his office when troops opened fire in the street last year. "He exploded. He called in his generals and pounded his fists on the table and shouted, `How could this happen?"' says the diplomat, who was told about the incident by a Wiranto aide.

After consolidating power, Wiranto's expects to turn to economic matters next. General Bambang, who is tipped as Wiranto's successor as head of the military, says Wiranto would seek to appoint an economic council of civilian experts to "find a comprehensive solution for the Indonesian economy."

Indonesia's fragile recovery can only last if the country avoids the kind of unrest and violence that characterized the end of Suharto's rein. If Megawati, Habibie--and the Indonesian public--accept Wiranto as both kingmaker and compromiser, that could happen. A similar arrangement between Corazon Aquino and General Fidel Ramos calmed the Philippines after a tumultuous period in the 1980s. "People are harking toward some political figure who shows proven stability and focus," says Education Minister Juwono Sudarsono, a respected political scientist. Wiranto just might be the man.By Michael Shari in Jakarta, with Sheri Prasso in New YorkReturn to top


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