Muslim cleric wins in Jakarta

Wahid, a moderate, beats Megawati for Indonesia presidency

Military promises support

Rival's supporters clash with troops in streets of capital

October 21, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Abdurrahman Wahid, a partly blind and frail Muslim cleric who previously had never run for political office, was elected Indonesia's president yesterday in a stunning upset that steers the world's fourth-most-populous nation into uncharted waters.

The powerful military immediately said it will support Wahid, who won this nation's first free presidential election in 44 years and was quickly sworn in.

Wahid's defeated rival, Megawati Sukarnoputri, called on her supporters to respect the results.

Wahid's first gesture in the People's Consultative Assembly, the 700-member body that elected him, also was conciliatory.

He took Megawati's hand and said, "I am here with you, Mega, to celebrate our victory and our democracy."

The pair then walked into the streets to try to calm violent protests by her supporters, who had expected a Megawati victory.

Several thousand supporters, many of them young, unemployed toughs, rampaged through the streets into the night and clashed with some of the 40,000 security troops on duty.

Three crude bombs exploded, two near the assembly and one in the heart of the hotel district, injuring 25 people.

No group claimed responsibility, and the disturbances tapered off early today. News agencies reported two people were killed.

Early today, Megawati was nominated to be vice president by Wahid's party, but, according to the cochairman of Megawati's party, she declined the offer.

"She will not accept it," Mochtar Buchori said.

Despite Wahid's health problems -- he suffered two strokes last year and underwent eye surgery this year in Salt Lake City -- and the surprise of his victory, political analysts said he has the tools to be a strong and timely leader.

Wahid, 59, has been propelled onto center stage just as Indonesia is making the transition to democracy after four decades of corruption, nepotism and often despotism in rule.

"This is a man clearly the United States can work with," Stanley Roth, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in Washington.

Voice of moral authority

Wahid -- known by the nickname Gus Dur, which combines an honorific title and a shortening of his name -- is a wily political maneuverer who speaks with a voice of moral authority.

He is one of the few Indonesian leaders to build bridges to all segments of this splintered society.

He has good relations with the military, which is crucial for any civilian president, and is respected by everyone from former Presidents Suharto and B. J. Habibie to the students whose protests brought down Suharto's 32-year authoritarian government last year and paved the way for democratic elections.

"The problem," said Eki Syachrudin, vice secretary-general of Habibie's Golkar Party, "is that people treat Gus Dur like a saint.

"Arguing with him is like arguing with God. And how do you argue with God?"

Over many years, the moderate cleric has preached a doctrine that includes support for the separation of church and state, respect for human rights and promotion of democracy.

Suharto at times considered him too Westernized and liberal. Others have cringed at his willingness to court controversy, such as his membership in Israel's Peres Institute for Peace and his visit to Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1994, during which he called for greater understanding between Arabs and Jews.

Wahid's prime base of support is Nahdlatul Ulama, a 30-million-member Muslim group co-founded by his grandfather.

In many ways, the support of Islamic parties signifies an increased role for religion in the politics of Indonesia, which has a larger Muslim population than any other nation. Islam traditionally has not played an important part in Indonesian politics.

Wahid said during his brief campaign that as president he would push for further democratic reforms and the economic restructuring sought by the International Monetary Fund.

He does not consider himself a politician and, in an interview with a German newspaper published hours before his election, he said, "I'm sick and tired of politics."

"I want to become a teacher to the Indonesian people," Wahid said in an interview with Indonesia's Tempo magazine in December. "That's all. I don't want anything else. If I am now active in politics, it is just because it [teaching] is a calling."

Three weeks to victory

One remarkable aspect of Wahid's victory is that three weeks ago he was not a candidate and was Megawati's close ally.

Victory seemed to be Megawati's for the asking. Her party won 34 percent of the popular vote in the June election for the 700-member assembly, which in Indonesia's transition to democracy after decades of authoritarian rule was given the task of electing the new president.

Wahid's National Awakening Party won 12 percent.

When Habibie, president for the past 17 months, lost what was in effect a vote of confidence in the assembly early yesterday and withdrew his election bid, Megawati had to contend only with Wahid's long-shot candidacy. By lunchtime, the streets here in the Indonesian capital were full of huge posters saying, "Megawati: She's My President."

But Megawati, the daughter of Indonesia's founder, President Sukarno, hardly campaigned. She gave few speeches or interviews. She did no coalition-building, took few positions on issues and offered no vision of Indonesia's future.

After being snubbed by Megawati, who refused to offer concessions to Muslim parties to ensure their support, Wahid declared his candidacy and stitched together a coalition that gave him 373 assembly votes, 22 more than he needed to win.

Megawati received 313 votes.

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