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Indonesia's compromise president

Legislature chooses a moderate Muslim cleric. Backers of the most

Tens of thousands of Indonesians took to the streets of their capital and other cities yesterday, saying that the country's new president was not the people's choice and vowing "revolution."

Turmoil has become almost commonplace here, but it was a sad aftermath to the first contested presidential election in Indonesia's half century as a modern state. A 700-member electoral assembly chose Abdurrahman Wahid, a moderate Muslim leader, as Indonesia's next president.

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This result disappointed the supporters of Megawati Sukarnoputri, a symbol of the fight against authoritarianism in Indonesia and the daughter of its first president. Her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) won a plurality in parliamentary elections last June but could not carry the day in the People's Consultative Assembly, which elects the president.

In the Assembly chamber she stood next to Mr. Wahid and clasped his hand after the vote, but later in the day her partisans were not so conciliatory. "We working-class people will fight for the revolution until our last drop of blood," said a young man standing in front of a phalanx of police near the Assembly complex.

The man said he left his house after watching the election on television, deciding to join a political demonstration for the first time in his life. "I can no longer stand to see the people's aspirations being ignored," he explained.

He'd chosen to wear a bright red polo shirt and a black baseball-style cap, no doubt because those are the colors of Megawati's party. Some of Jakarta's major avenues were filled with people in red yesterday, many of them carrying banners and wearing headbands with the party logo - a black bull with red eyes.

What these people will do in coming days is unclear. "Hopefully it's going to be temporary," says Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, a former Cabinet minister. "It's just anger, and the people have no other way to express their anger than violence, which has been the example shown to them by the authorities."

Protests for Megawati

Although Megawati has often preached against violence, some of her supporters appeared to play a dangerous game in the runup to the presidential vote, warning of revolution if their candidate did not win.

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Before learning the result of the vote, a department-store saleswoman named Vivi said Megawati's victory was necessary for economic stability, explaining a loss would mean "the people will go on riots, and the professionals will go on strike."

But "revolution" threats disturbed many Indonesians and may have contributed to Megawati's 373-to-313 defeat in the Assembly.

Apparently mindful of the potential for violence, Megawati and Wahid promised to visit some sites in Jakarta that have become venues for protests. But by yesterday evening they had not done so. Protests appeared set to continue into the night. At press time police said two people had been killed in a car-bomb explosion near the Assembly complex.

Diplomats, analysts, and other politicians also found fault with her political skills in assessing the election result. "Megawati was unwilling to share the power or negotiate with others," says Eki Syachrudin, an Assembly from the former ruling party, Golkar. She and her advisers "are the victims of the illusion that the winner of the [June] elections should automatically become the head of the government."

Subagio Anam, an Assembly member and a Megawati adviser, says the race ceased to be entirely political after two other candidates - former President B.J. Habibie and a prominent Muslim lawyer - dropped out. "It was not possible to fight against [Wahid] because of his religious interests," says Mr. Anam. "The issue was not how to have the best politician but how to have the best religious teacher."

Wahid leads an organization called the Religious Scholars, an Islamic social-service and educational organization that claims more than 35 million members in a country that is nominally more than 90 percent muslim.

At the same time, Megawati's PDIP is considered by some to be overly dominated by Christians. The "revolution" threat, for example, prompted counter threats of jihad, or holy war, from some small extremist Islamic groups.

To some extent, says economist Syachrudin, the choice of Wahid represents "the equilibrium of market politics." He is a compromise figure - someone who isn't as controversial as Megawati or the contest's other leading candidate, former President Habibie. The latter stepped aside after the Assembly voted to reject his so-called accountability address - the Indonesian equivalent of a parliamentary no-confidence vote.

Inaugural address

In his inaugural address, Wahid was conciliatory to Habibie, who had ruled Indonesia since President Suharto's resignation in May 1998.

Mr. Suharto had presided over a sham democracy in which his party overwhelmingly won parliamentary contests and he stood unopposed in presidential contests in the Assembly. His resignation amid massive student-led protests over economic mismanagement and political authoritarianism appeared to set the stage for a wholesale shift toward a more democratic system.

Notwithstanding the frustrations of Megawati's protesters - who feel that she deserves the presidency because of the June elections and because she represents a complete break with the past - Indonesia's democratization seems to be proceeding.

Yesterday's contest was an unprecedented event here - the first time Indonesians have ever woken up knowing they would have a new president by evening. The Assembly is making up the rules as it goes along, but it is also engaging in a remarkable amount of political dealmaking.

Wahid's presidency could be the beginning of an era of democratic transformation, although in his inaugural address he concentrated on reminding the Assembly of challenges ahead and of the need to protect Indonesia's integrity and dignity. He is worried about integrity because this sprawling, diverse country contains regions that are agitating for independence. Just yesterday the Assembly voted to allow East Timor to secede, accepting the results of its August referendum. And he is worried about dignity because Indonesia has been internationally criticized for its handling of East Timor.

After the referendum results were announced, militia groups created by the Indonesian military destroyed much of the territory's infrastructure and killed an unknown number of people.

The UN is mounting a human-rights investigation as a result.

The East Timor crisis and other factors have prompted an upsurge of nationalism here.

"We still cannot find it acceptable that judgments be passed by other countries on our countries," Wahid said. "We will do whatever necessary to maintain our dignity and our integrity."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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