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Dark Before Dawn

This was my effort to try to figure out how, in a few hours, Abdurrahman Wahid had edged out the favorite Megawati in the presidential college elections. It also proved prophetic in suggesting Indonesia wasn’t out of the woods.

Dark Before Dawn: How the Elite Made a Deal Before Indonesia Woke Up

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Staff Reporter

2 November 1999

The Asian Wall Street Journal
(c) 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

JAKARTA — It’s 2 a.m. on Oct. 20, and Indonesia’s parliament has delivered a stunning rebuke to President B.J. Habibie. It has just rejected his “accountability speech” — the equivalent of a no-confidence vote. In the expansive parlor of the presidential mansion, Mr. Habibie receives the news, then quietly addresses a handful of the country’s elite assembled there.

“Morally I cannot continue,” he says.

With that statement, Mr. Habibie set off one of the most frantic 10 hours of politicking in Indonesia’s two-year lurch toward democracy. The next morning, a special body would be convening to elect a president, and now Golkar, the governing party for three decades, had no candidate.

Presumably this would clear the path for Megawati Sukarno-putri, the wildly popular daughter of Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno — her party won the most votes in June’s parliamentary election. Instead, before the day was out, Indonesia would get a charismatic, blind cleric, Abdurrahman Wahid, and the threat of new unrest.

How that deal was made, and how others collapsed, reveals the extent to which a small group of power brokers controls the political machine here, democracy notwithstanding. While the nation slept, at least two candidates would rise and fall, a party stalwart would pull a gun in the halls of parliament, and Mr. Wahid would conduct a jocular interview with several Golkar courtiers, dispensing compromises that could later haunt his presidency.

The events of the morning would also lay bare the political ineffectiveness of the nation’s most popular politician, Ms. Megawati, and her inability to capitalize on utter breakdown in her rival’s camp.

Back in the president’s parlor, wheels are already turning. Among Mr. Habibie’s guests are several people with ambitions to high office themselves — among them, armed-forces chief Gen. Wiranto, Muslim leader Hamzah Haz, newly elected assembly speaker Amien Rais, and Golkar party chairman Akbar Tandjung. Mr. Habibie locks eyes with Mr. Tandjung, the man many suspect of engineering the embarrassing no-confidence vote. “Now is the moment you’ve been predicting,” Mr. Habibie says pointedly. “Tell us what your (plan) is.”

The prologue to this evening came in May 1998, when President Suharto resigned amid economic breakdown and rioting. He was succeeded by his vice-president and longtime protege, Mr. Habibie, who promised free parliamentary elections within a year. The new 500-member parliament would constitute the bulk of a 700-member electoral college, which in turn would select Indonesia’s first democratically elected president in nearly a half-century.

The June 1999 parliamentary vote produced no outright winner, but it confirmed the strong popularity of Ms. Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, which took 32% of the electable seats. Golkar, the party of Messrs. Suharto and Habibie, came in second with 25%, showing that despite waning fortunes it was no weakling. Other parties didn’t do nearly as well. The National Mandate Party of the popular Muslim leader Amien Rais, for instance, won only 7%.

Although any party could nominate a presidential candidate, it seemed likely that only Ms. Megawati and Mr. Habibie had a real chance.

But in the electoral college, the game isn’t popularity but politicking. That’s where Ms. Megawati was stumbling. By the night of the accountability-speech vote, the all-important slots of electoral-college speaker and parliament speaker were both held by leaders of rival parties, Messrs. Rais and Tandjung, respectively — offering a hint of the deals to come.

It’s 2.30 a.m. One by one, Mr. Habibie and his friends go around the parlor, suggesting alternatives. Mr. Hamzah, Mr. Habibie’s ally and leader of the tiny Muslim United Development Party, declines to run. Yusril Mahendra, a law professor and leader of the 13-seat Bulan Bintang party, says his party is too small. Mr. Rais, who won the assembly speaker’s position with Golkar’s backing, is noncommittal: “I have a deal to support Gus Dur,” he says, using Mr. Wahid’s nickname.

He leaves, apparently to negotiate with Mr. Wahid. An hour or so later, Mr. Habibie departs for Jakarta’s main mosque to pray with thousands of supporters. By then the word is out that he’s not running.

When he gets back at 5.30 a.m., dawn is breaking and pressure is growing. Ninety minutes remain until the deadline for registering candidates. With no word yet from Mr. Rais, there’s only one viable runner left: Mr. Tandjung, the Golkar chief.

A barrel of a man, with a low, lisping voice, Mr. Tandjung is as much an echo of the past as everyone else in the room. A minister under both Messrs. Suharto and Habibie, he owes his current party position to the behind-the-scenes deal-making 16 months earlier by Mr. Habibie and Gen. Wiranto. (The military is a powerful political force in Indonesia. With Gen. Wiranto at the helm, it controls a key 5% of the 700 electoral-college votes.)

However, longstanding suspicions that Mr. Tandjung has been secretly cutting deals with other parties are coming home to roost: In the hours since Mr. Habibie pulled out of the race, Mr. Tandjung has been punched and insulted twice by Habibie supporters.

Nevertheless, in these desperate hours he is Golkar’s last hope. “You’ve got the support of the second-biggest party,” Mr. Habibie tells him.

After a few minutes of persuasion, Mr. Tandjung agrees. Mr. Habibie and others rush forward to hug him, and many people in the room — including Mr. Tandjung — have tears in their eyes. Golkar still has a chance.

It’s 6 a.m. and one by one, the assembled depart Mr. Habibie’s house to prepare for the parliamentary session. However, doubts remain. Mr. Tandjung “looked completely uncertain,” recalls Abdul Gafur, former Golkar chairman. “He knew he couldn’t count on the support of everyone in Golkar.”

Mr. Gafur’s doubts proved correct. Even as his name is being submitted to the assembly — five minutes before the deadline — Mr. Tandjung faces heated opposition in a meeting room on the ninth floor of the assembly’s newly finished wing. Many Habibie supporters are livid that he is standing. Twenty or so people in the crowded room are yelling. A senior party official and Tandjung supporter whisks a gun out of a holster in his sock and shouts above the din. “Don’t push Akbar! Push him and it means you push me!”

It’s clear to Mr. Tandjung he doesn’t stand a chance. At 7 a.m. he slips out to the mosque in the parliament complex, and then quietly consults some colleagues. At 7.30 a.m. his candidacy is pulled, 35 minutes after being submitted.

For Golkar, this seemingly is the end. The party is entering the presidential election with no candidate. The party’s 180 electoral-college votes — a quarter of the total — are now up for grabs.

Mr. Tandjung’s withdrawal elevates the chances of someone until now considered the outsider: the cleric Mr. Wahid. His National Awakening Party won a paltry 10% of the seats in the parliamentary vote. But he is a beloved figure, and as a Muslim leader is palatable to one of the key constituents allying against Ms. Megawati’s brand of secular nationalism.

Ms. Megawati’s party has so far been slow off the block in cutting deals in the assembly, and tonight is no different. There has been scant sign of party lobbyists since they registered their candidate, a half-hour after Mr. Habibie lost the vote on his accountability speech.

PDI-P leaders had gathered earlier at their makeshift base in the cavernous grand ballroom at the Hilton Hotel, a half-mile from the parliament. But the meeting lasted less than an hour. Euphoric after Mr. Habibie’s defeat, they did their sums again — by their most conservative calculation, party members reckon they can count on 371 votes, enough to win the presidency. That’s because of earlier secret deals with Mr. Tandjung’s wing of Golkar, and their firm belief that Mr. Wahid will back down.

By 2 a.m., when Mr. Habibie was gathering his guests in his parlor — a political lifetime ago — most PDI-P leaders had retired to their hotel rooms, including Ms. Megawati. It’s only when PDI-P members turn up at parliament for the vote itself that they realize their deals have been overtaken by events.

For Golkar’s Habibie supporters, once Mr. Tandjung is out, it’s a no-brainer about whether to approach Ms. Megawati or Mr. Wahid with their votes. A group of them pile into two cars to make the five-minute run to the marble lobby of the Hotel Mulia. There, in an unobtrusive conference room on the mezzanine floor, they patiently await the 59-year-old cleric.

Mr. Wahid is helped in, as usual, by two companions. Even after a night of politicking, he is his customary jovial self, describing how he just got off the phone with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. A few hours earlier he had sealed his own alliance with assembly speaker Rais and other Muslim leaders, giving him a fighting chance of the presidency.

Suddenly, Mr. Wahid — a candidate who had long professed support for Ms. Megawati — looks set to become her most dangerous rival.

The Golkar leaders are businesslike. They offer at least 150 votes in return for Mr. Wahid’s support for their vice-presidential candidate. Fine, says Mr. Wahid, according to Golkar members attending the meeting. Golkar also wants 10 seats in his 35-member cabinet. Fine, says Mr. Wahid again — “I only want three or four for myself, you can have the rest,” he says, chuckling.

One of the Golkar members, businessman Laode Kamaluddin, recalls: “We weren’t sure if he was being serious.”

But there’s no time to check. The electoral-college vote is due to start in 15 minutes.

In Makassar, the capital of Mr. Habibie’s home province of South Sulawesi, hundreds of students are in the streets protesting his withdrawal. At a massive traffic circle in Jakarta, tens of thousands of Megawati supporters are gathering. And in parliament, house speaker Rais has read the final list of candidates — and it contains a surprise.

The tiny, Muslim-oriented Bulan Bintang party has registered its chairman, Mr. Mahendra, as a candidate after all, despite his protestations in Mr. Habibie’s parlor hours before.

A handsome law professor with an intellectual disposition, he is a serious potential spoiler. As a Muslim figure, he could drag vital support away from Mr. Wahid.

Baffled supporters of Mr. Wahid beg Mr. Mahendra and his supporters for him to withdraw. But when the session opens at 11.30 a.m., an hour late, he’s still there.

It’s a gambit by veteran politician Hartono Mardjono, who along with Bulan Bunting’s members, fears that the mercurial Mr. Wahid will withdraw his candidacy at the last minute, leaving the field to Ms. Megawati. Mr. Hartono’s plan: to keep Mr. Mahendra’s name in the ring as a substitute Muslim-oriented candidate until they are sure Mr. Wahid won’t withdraw. “Don’t interfere,” Mr. Hartono tells other assembly members. “Trust me.”

As the session starts, a bomb goes off at the city’s central roundabout, injuring several Megawati supporters. In the assembly, however, party leaders are hunched over pencils calculating how many votes they can count on. As long as Mr. Mahendra is a candidate, it’s a three-horse race likely to benefit Ms. Megawati. As party elder it’s up to the diminutive Mr. Hartono to seal the deal directly with Mr. Wahid, a few seats away.

It’s nail-biting time. Mr. Rais calls the house to order — the vote is about to begin. A phalanx of officials from Ms. Megawati’s party, PDI-P, have surrounded Mr. Wahid in a last-ditch attempt to persuade him to give way to Ms. Megawati. Mr. Hartono struggles through. A TV camera hovers inches away.

Mr. Hartono whispers in Mr. Wahid’s ear: Are you serious about your candidacy?

I am, says Mr. Wahid.

Will you give up your candidacy? In the name of God, no, Mr. Wahid replies.

Don’t worry, Mr. Wahid adds, your party will be looked after, Mr. Hartono recalls him saying.

At last, Mr. Hartono is satisfied Mr. Wahid isn’t about to gather up votes, only to hand them to Ms. Megawati. “It was a very, very tense moment,” recalls fellow Bulan Bintang member Hamdan Zoelva. With his party persuaded that Mr. Wahid is willing to fight Ms. Megawati, Mr. Mahendra is ready to formally withdraw. A few moments later, as he calls on his Muslim brothers to support Mr. Wahid, there’s an uproar. Supporters rush to embrace Mr. Mahendra. Some are crying. The outcome looks clear — presidency for Mr. Wahid.

At 2.48 p.m. that result is announced: Mr. Wahid has won by 70 votes.

Supporters of Ms. Megawati are distraught. In the streets outside, they begin to converge on parliament. Another bomb explodes, killing several PDI-P supporters.

In the name of stability, Mr. Wahid spends the next evening patching together support for Ms. Megawati as his vice president. One by one, rivals fall away — among them Mr. Tandjung and Gen. Wiranto. By the time the vice-presidential vote is taken, 24 hours after presidential vote, only one rival stands: Mr. Hamzah.

Ms. Megawati wins by more than 100 votes. The PDI-P protests turn to celebrations.

Within a week Mr. Wahid announces his cabinet. Tellingly, the ministers include Mr. Mahendra, the spoiler presidential candidate; Mr. Haz, Ms. Megawati’s rival for the vice-presidency; Marzuki Darusman, a deputy to Mr. Tandjung; and Mr. Habibie’s first choice as running mate: Gen. Wiranto. It’s a hodgepodge of nominees from all the main political parties and the military, reflecting the political concessions Mr. Wahid has made to attain the presidency.

It will be a cabinet populated with strong personalities and divergent politics, held together by Mr. Wahid, a man who despite his infirmities has proved himself adept at backroom dealing. It ranges from two outspoken economists from Ms. Megawati’s camp, a former head of the government-sponsored national trade union, to three senior generals. Whether it holds will depend on the depth of ties sealed in the early hours of Oct. 20.

Only one group appear left out: Mr. Habibie’s supporters. After being promised 10 seats, they only have two of their nominees in the cabinet. “We lost the power game,” says Mr. Gafur, the Golkar member.

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