International Papers

Democracy in Action 

Asian newspapers spent much of the weekend speculating about coming events in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The 12-day meeting of the Indonesian consultative assembly, which opens Monday, elicited predictions that President Abdurrahman Wahid would face a “leadership crisis” (the Times of India) and a possible reduction of presidential powers but that he would not be impeached, at least not during the session.

Much was expected of Indonesia’s first democratically elected leader in more than 40 years after he came to power last October, but “Gus Dur’s” inability to soothe separatist sentiments in Aceh and Irian Jaya, to control communal strife in the Moluccan Islands (where more than 4,000 have died in nine months of conflict between Christians and Muslims), or to end militia actions in Timor have led to disenchantment. An evaluation in the Jakarta Post concluded that the president will survive because “replacing him would lead to more chaos and would therefore solve nothing” and because “there are no viable alternative candidates to take his place.” It said there was a consensus that Abdurrahman’s greatest successes have been promoting free speech and reining in the military, while his biggest failures are the still-sagging economy, the rising crime rate, and his “penchant to make statements that confuse people.” An op-ed in the International Herald Tribune echoed the latter sentiment, stating:

His public comments have been erratic, contradictory and at times downright irrational. He has compromised where principled stands were called for and stubbornly dug in his heels where a more experienced politician would have given ground. Reform has bogged down in key areas. Policies across the board are confused, where they can be discerned at all.

The assembly—or MPR, as it’s known—will consider a proposal to allow the president to be impeached with a simple majority vote. According to the IHT, “if passed, it is almost certain to make Indonesian politics still more uncertain and unpredictable.” If he survives the summit, Abdurrahman is expected to streamline his Cabinet, reducing the number of ministers from 35 to around 25. The current Cabinet was selected to “satisfy a mishmash of political, religious and geographic interests” (IHT) following the election, while the new lineup would be chosen on a purely professional basis. The nomination of a first minister to manage the day-to-day running of government is also anticipated, though the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri opposes the idea, “prompting speculation that Mr Wahid will be forced to agree to a three-way power-sharing initiative.”

The corruption trial of former Indonesian President Suharto also begins in Jakarta Monday. According to the Financial Times, Abdurrahman has “appeared indecisive over the vital question of how to deal with Mr Suharto’s family and cronies who enriched themselves during his presidency,” an impression the trial is intended to dispel. Many papers suggested that the charges against 79-year-old Suharto—that he diverted more than $570 million from charitable foundations he controlled during his 32-year presidency to projects run by family members—represent a tiny fraction of the “amounts reported to have been amassed in Suharto’s decades of familial autocracy” (London’s Sunday Times), but officials narrowed the charges to allow the case to come to trial quickly.

This week the Sri Lankan parliament will debate constitutional reforms proposed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga in an attempt to end the civil war that has left more than 60,000 dead in 17 years. The new constitution would devolve power to the regions and allow limited autonomy for the Tamil minority. An editorial in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Observer backed the reforms, asserting that the Sinhalese majority’s historical failure to address Tamil grievances has pushed Tamils to increased militancy and eventually to the current “full-blown armed rebellion deteriorating to individual terrorism, guerilla-type war and now conventional warfare.” It agreed with the president that demonstrating a willingness to make concessions to the Tamil population would diminish support for the extremist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The LTTE demand nothing less than complete independence. Sri Lanka’s main opposition United National Party and the country’s Buddhist leadership are also against the reforms. Indeed, according to a story in the Times of India, two Buddhist leaders vowed to refuse to conduct funeral rites for any MPs who vote for the constitutional reforms.

The 175th anniversary of Bolivian independence occasioned several depressing editorials there. A piece in El Diario lamented that although an acceptable version of democracy has finally been achieved, the country is in desperate need of decent politicians who will serve the interests of society rather than themselves. It concluded:

It’s time to plan carefully and to make a serious attack on the corruption ingrained at all levels. Today Bolivians must make a profession of faith to return to the path of progress and solidarity, because that’s the only way to improve our future.

They’re not through with the Republicans yet: Following George W. Bush’s acceptance speech Thursday night, several papers offered advice to the candidate. The Irish Times passed on a tip given to the British Conservative Party leader, currently struggling to reposition his party against a popular government: “[F]loating voters don’t necessarily have middle-of-the-road views.” It predicted, “much of the interest of this election may be found” in the working out of that observation. The Cuban state newspaper, Granma, carried Fidel Castro’s counsel for Dubya: “Put the convention’s euphoria to one side and don’t run the risk of becoming the 10th president to discover that the Cuban revolution will not yield and cannot be destroyed.” Castro declared, “Never, in times so complex and chaotic as these, have we faced two contenders that are so boring and insipid.”