When the scorpion tanks clattered to a halt outside the Istana Merdeka palace in Jakarta, Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid was at first relieved. "Maybe they're here to protect the palace," he said to his daughter. But when she pointed out that the tanks had swiveled their guns toward his balcony, Wahid knew that he had lost a game of brinkmanship. The security forces had switched loyalties to his Vice President, Megawati Sukarnoputri.
For a few days last week, Indonesia had an embarrassment of Presidents. Even after Wahid was impeached and the People's Consultative Assembly gave Megawati his post, the irascible and nearly blind Muslim cleric held on. "They can turn off the water and electricity, but they're not going to get me out of here," Wahid, 61, told his wife Sinta Nuriyah. But Megawati had already put the presidential "No. 1" license plate on her black Mercedes limousine. "That's fine, dear," sighed Wahid's wife. "But the people are going to be looking to you for leadership. What then?" Wahid finally agreed to leave and seek medical attention in Baltimore, Md. The family hurriedly packed their belongings, including one of the self-help audiotapes to which Wahid had been listening: When Things Fall Apart. They left on July 26.
The risk now is that Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, will fall apart just as Wahid's presidency did. The country is in deep trouble. It is emerging painfully from 32 years of the Suharto dictatorship, an era of forced social engineering and epic plunder. As the center collapses, ancient tribal and religious feuds have revived across the archipelago of 13,000 islands; 3,500 died in the violence last year. Unemployment is estimated at 40%, while corruption and economic bungling have kept foreign investment at "sub-zero," as a diplomat puts it. Most worrying of all, many observers in Jakarta doubt that Megawati, who owes her ascension to the army, has the will or smarts to make the hard decisions now needed.
A moderate and a reformer, Wahid came to office with high expectations as Indonesia's first democratically elected President. But his sheer orneriness was a fatal flaw; in less than two years, 22 ministers left his Cabinet. And though he inherited respect as a hereditary Muslim religious leader, Wahid was dangerously uninformed about the true level of his support. Toward the end, he shunned many advisers and retreated into the world of supernatural omens and spirits.
To Wahid's credit, his departure was at least peaceful--no small achievement in a city where the practice of rent-a-crowd is so standardized that slum enforcers print up rate cards. (For $2, you get a supporter for three hours; banners and chants are extra.) The question is whether Megawati can maintain a semblance of order. She has stronger backing than Wahid in parliament. And the military likes her: they share a common abhorrence of the separatist fever sweeping through Aceh and Papua (the former Irian Jaya) provinces. Her dynastic birthright helps too. Megawati is the daughter of Sukarno, the country's founding President.