Indonesia: The Army's Democratic Role

The army has always played a major role in Indonesian politics. Despite democratic elections held on June 7, the first in nearly four decades, that is not going to change. Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Wiranto is actively maneuvering to put himself in office as a powerful Vice-President with the apparent winner of the elections, Megawati Sukarnoputri, as President.

It is a distinctly second-best solution. Though Indonesian reality might not have permitted any other outcome, Wiranto must now resist the temptation to wield full powers and treat Megawati purely as a figurehead. His greatest service to Indonesia will be to help its progress toward becoming a fully functioning democracy--and allowing civilians to run policy.

The justification for Wiranto's ploy is that it may be the best way of heading off the civil strife and chaos that probably would have ensued had Megawati been kept out of office entirely. That was a live possibility, had events followed their normal course. With the 35% of votes she is estimated to have won, Megawati could easily have ended in opposition rather than in power, thanks to the complexity of the process of appointing the country's President.

Added to that, Indonesia needs stability if it is to nurture its nascent economic recovery and encourage foreign investors to return. Stability will come at a steep price. Wiranto apparently has promised former President Suharto that he would be pardoned for decades of corruption under his rule. In addition, with its chief in office, the army will clearly be protected against any serious investigations of its own civil rights abuses.

But that price won't be too high--provided that Wiranto moves the country toward greater democracy and accustoms the military to the idea that it must in the end serve civilian masters.

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