Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

View from the top

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Parliament, the constitution, and the future, as seen from the presidential palace

Greg Barton interviews President Abdurrahman Wahid

Tell us your impressions of this annual session of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR).

The most important thing about the current MPR session as expressed by some PKB members is that instead of having the arrogance of the executive, as was the case in the past, now we have the arrogance of the legislature. We need to understand the reasons for this. In my opinion many are afraid of an executive that is too arrogant and because of that they want something to check its power. The check and balance has shifted from the one envisioned in the constitution of 1945.

The necessity now is to adjust the powers of the two sides: the legislative as well as the executive branches of the government. I think that this problem has existed for many years, even in 1945. Do you know that when independence was declared and the 1945 constitution was applied, a declaration was issued that gave the prime minister the power to form a parliamentary cabinet with a parliament dominated by the parties? That was in clear breach of the constitution. If we see now people like Heri Achmadi (PDI-P parliamentarian) and Budi Santoso (Golkar parliamentarian) and many other members of the MPR, this same mistake can be repeated again in a bid to check the power of the executive.

As I told Megawati Sukarnoputri during this session: 'They can check the power of the executive but they should not do it at the expense of changing the constitution. You see, if you change the basic formulation of the constitution of 1945 I am afraid that this will provoke the other side to stage a coup d'etat. That will mean the constitution of 1945 has been violated.' So I told her that if this scenario should develop I would have to take the side of those who launch the coup d'etat. Why? Because for me it is only possible to have democracy if you have a state. But if you constantly have such turbulence that the very form of the state is questioned then you have will have no democracy at all. So the most important thing is to guarantee the existence of the state. The important thing is to avoid the situation deteriorating to the point of a coup d'etat being launched.

It is essential to have a stable state. Without it democracy cannot function. So because of this I have stressed the importance of returning to the constitution of 1945. But of course the holder of the presidency has the duty to heed the warnings as well as the wishes of those who would like to have a more balanced government. The executive should not be too powerful. This we can achieve not by weakening the executive as a whole but by weakening the presidency.

So I had to reply to the parties that I will assign technical daily tasks involving the cabinet to the vice president, in order to distribute the power of the office holder. Each decision needs to be made on the basis of discussion between myself together with the vice president and the two coordinating ministers. Through this arrangement, in which the leadership team discusses all important matters, the power of the president will be checked so that he is not able to simply do things for his own purposes.

And the system will remain a presidential one with the final authority left with the president?

Yes, of course, until the MPR is convinced otherwise.

In what way will your new cabinet be different to the cabinet of the past ten months?

I think that the stress will not be on balancing party-political interests but instead upon expertise. Technical matters will be taken care of by three people: the two coordinating ministers and the vice president, whilst I will take care the 'big picture matters' both domestic and international.

If, to some extent, assessment of the previous cabinet's performance was a matter of perception, is this partly a result of the fact that many did not appreciate that regime change takes at least five years, and often ten to make substantial changes?

Whatever people say about Indonesians as a whole, as a nation, one thing that seems clear to me is that they understand that the changes have to be profound, have to be fundamental. Although they might be very noisy in protesting many things, both the intellectuals and everyone else, in the end they understand that we have to change. This is very important to understand. Otherwise, if we don't know our own people we will be returning to the clichof the past, and I am against this sort of attitude. We have to stick to the principles and apply them to the day-to-day realities of our nation.

What sort of 'cliche of the past' do you have in mind?

Well the sort of things said recently by (UN human rights commissioner) Mary Robinson that we have to be against those in the armed forces. That's crazy because we have so many good people among the soldiers. So we have to differentiate between the institution and the individuals. There are so many individuals and it may be that many of them were not good but we have to back the good people, the honest people. You know the most democratic of people, Ali Sadikin, was a lieutenant general in the marines.

So your vision is one of moderate and gradual change?

We have to continue to stress the fundamental direction of change but also not to forget the reality of the situation.

How would you summarise your vision for what you want to achieve over the next four years?

The most important thing is to establish democracy, which means bringing the principles of democracy to bear on the day-to-day realities of life in this nation. The second thing is to revive the economy, this is very important. We have to stimulate foreign investment and build confidence. We have to rationalise the entire way in which this nation functions, the way that business works here. I see that one of the main obstacles that we need to overcome is establishing sufficient infrastructure to enable future development in the form of roads, bridges, airports, harbours, schools, hospitals and so forth.

Apart from that I think that Indonesia as the fourth-largest nation and the third-largest democracy has the right to play an important role in international affairs. It is important to monitor and contribute to international affairs and I intend to do this, with the assistance of the minister for foreign affairs.

In this context it is important to recognise that we have not, and will not, take the path of pure socialism. Instead our system is based on capitalism but it needs to be a capitalism which is mindful of the needs of all people.

What about the political parties? After all it is not possible to have a healthy democracy without good parties. In particular, how do you see the future for PDI-P and PKB?

One thing that is clear now is that our political landscape will change. The change will be caused by many things. The first is that Golkar is so discredited by its past. To some extent the Golkar leadership could rectify the situation by acknowledging the fact that they were guilty of many wrongs in that past and declaring that they now want to make amends, to ask for forgiveness from the people. But up until now they have not done that. If they continue like this Golkar will be soundly rejected in the next election.

The second thing is that the next election will be determined by complex party affiliations that cut across a wide range of social groupings. Both PDI-P and PKB need to become parties with broad-based support across society. The parties need to apply rationalism to develop their positions and not simply rely on emotionalism. PDI-P needs to move beyond a simplistic kind of 'Sukarnoism' and stress a more thoughtful understanding of Sukarno's legacy. I myself follow him in many ways, adapting his thinking and techniques but seeking to be true to his principles.

At the same time PKB needs move beyond Islam and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) as its political base. It needs to move beyond politics based on communal affiliation. That is why I said to the chairman of PKB, Matori Abdul Djalil, that whilst in the short term we need to draw our party leadership from largely Islamic sources we should try to be as inclusive as possible and draw from across the full spectrum of Muslim communities, associations, NGOs and social groupings.

Greg Barton (gjbarton@deakin.edu.au) teaches at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. He is writing a biography of Abdurrahman Wahid. These are excerpts from an exclusive interview recorded for 'Inside Indonesia' on 15 August 2000, partway through the MPR session.

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000

Latest Articles

Essay: Testing out my Bahasa Indonesia

Jul 09, 2024 - PATRICK J MAHONY

We need to learn more about each other. If we do, we will find that in many ways we have much in common

Asbestos danger

Jul 08, 2024 - GWYN ROBERTS

What can be done to prevent suffering in Indonesia?

Obituary: Stop telling, start listening

Jul 04, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Owen Podger’s guide to aid-giving

Essay: What remains of the 1998 tragedy for the post-1998 generation


Hearing about my mother's experiences in May 1998 became a pivotal moment that has shaped my life. 

Obit: Bob Muntz, 1947-2024

Jun 24, 2024 - HELEN PAUSACKER

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.