His fate hangs on politics and the people


As Wednesday’s presidential vote looms, the debate among legislators in the MPR and voices out in the streets will combine to decide if incumbent B. J. Habibie gets another crack at the country’s highest office

IS THE writing on the wall for President B. J. Habibie?

Barely three days before the presidential poll, it has become clear that his lengthy accountability speech to the national assembly (MPR) last Thursday provided fodder to political adversaries bent on ensuring that the incumbent stands no chance of serving a fresh five-year term.

Two of the largest factions in the MPR have already given failing marks to his performance after 17 months in office.And none of the seven other factions which had addressed the MPR by yesterday – including Golkar, which put him up as its presidential candidate – openly supported his accountability speech. They merely expressed “reservations”.

Whether this would later translate into a full-blown rejection come Wednesday remains to be seen as the MPR debate continues – and analysts on the sidelines assess how much damage Dr Habibie might sustain in the process. A rejection of his speech by the majority of 700 members in the assembly would erode his political credibility. But there is nothing in the Constitution or MPR rule book that would disqualify him from running still. MPR chairman Amien Rais said that the only effect a rejection would have on Dr Habibie would be to “lower the quality of his candidacy” because it would give him “a much smaller legitimacy”.

“It now depends on the Golkar faction to decide,” he said.

“It is all up to them.”

Indeed, that is the crux of the matter.

If Dr Habibie fails to win the MPR over with more statistics and economic charts to justify his claims of economic achievement during his tenure, it will offer his adversaries in Golkar the opportunity to withdraw the support that they reluctantly gave him.

Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung said this week that the party’s backing for Dr Habibie was predicated on one key assumption: That his speech receives the “full blessings” of the MPR.

If this does not happen, the party’s central executive board can exercise its “discretionary powers” to change its position and switch to an alternative candidate.

Habibie loyalists, smelling connivance in the corridors of power, are pushing for a vote on the speech either tomorrow or on Tuesday.

This is to prevent Golkar reformists like Mr Akbar and party deputy chairman Marzuki Darusman from calling for an early vote today, a move which will give the reformists more time to put together a plan of action ahead of Wednesday’s vote. This would likely include having secret talks with the Indonesian Democratic Party-Perjuangan (Struggle) of Ms Megawati Soekarnoputri to perhaps strike a deal at the eleventh hour.

What is still working in Dr Habibie’s favour is the possibility that his opponents may not have the numbers to challenge him.

But if there are defections of 55 to 60 Golkar members, which is what his rivals are aiming for, it would deal a fatal blow to his chances.

Two other factors, however, could keep the President in the running:
* The votes of the “Central Axis” group of Muslim parties and the Nation Awakening Party (PKB) would need to be split or at the very least, not flow overwhelmingly to Ms Megawati.
* Secondly, Dr Habibie would need defence forces (TNI) chief General Wiranto to stay firmly by his side and not accept any other nomination. This could be difficult given that the ambitious Javanese general is also keeping a line open to Ms Megawati and could end up as her running mate.

But politics in the MPR alone may not in the end decide who will be Indonesia’s fourth president.

The threat of large-scale unrest in the streets of Jakarta could re-focus the minds of many legislators on the risks of voting for an unpopular president.

Periodic clashes between security forces and thousands of demonstrators these past few days could be a harbinger of things to come for an Indonesia crying for change.

And it is of little comfort to know that there are more than 100,000 supporters of rival camps massing in the capital and spoiling for a fight if their presidential candidate does not come into power.

The English-language Jakarta Post daily said in an editorial titled “Habibie versus the people” yesterday that “it is crystal clear that a serious gap exists between the chief executive’s thinking and that of the Indonesian public at large”.

“One piece of good advice that we can give to our legislators presently convened in the MPR: Listen to the voice of the people.”

After all, former president Suharto’s unanimous election in March last year, which went totally against sentiment in the streets, could not stop him from being dumped unceremoniously two months later on a wave of mass unrest.

But it would also be wrong to assume that a breakdown of law and order would be the determining factor for legislators.

Only foreign analysts assuming rational behaviour on the part of the MPR would reach such a conclusion.

The record of Indonesian politics this past year in particular has been one where normal considerations of cost and benefit seem to have been thrown out of the window.

The irrational and the unexpected frequently prevail.

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