Among heads of state, Indonesia's is unique--and uniquely challenged. Aburrahman Wahid ("Gus Dur") is virtually blind and has suffered two strokes. His country, the world's fourth most populous, is bedeviled by political and economic crises. Momentum toward secession in several outlying regions, notably Aceh and Irian Jaya, threatens to unravel the republic. In Maluku province, intercommunal violence has accelerated. Prospects for continued recovery from the devastating recession of 1998 are uncertain. As impatience mounts over the inability of Gus Dur's government to date to solve such problems, fragile stability and nascent democratization are at risk of reversal, especially if elements in the army decide to intervene.
Who is the man in the eye of this hurricane? What does his background tell us about his ability to cope with his country's manifold problems? Is he up to the task? Will he be ousted by his rivals? Or, in Indonesia's post-authoritarian political climate, do Gus Dur's weaknesses amount to a kind of strength?
Donald K. Emmerson is a senior fellow at the Asia/Pacific Research Center. His edited book, Indonesia beyond Suharto, has just been published. Other recent writings include pieces in the Journal of Democracy and the National Interest--the former on political change in Southeast Asia, the latter on Western moralpolitik in East Timor. In June and August 1999 he helped to monitor Indonesia's national elections in Maluku and the UN's plebiscite on sovereignty in East Timor, respectively. His talk on Gus Dur will include information obtained during a three-hour interview with the new president in Jakarta in December 1999.