The day President Abdurrahman Wahid arrived at the presidential palace in central Jakarta last October, his spirits and those of the country were riding high. After 32 years of Suharto's dictatorship and 17 months of interim rule by Suharto's deputy B.J. Habibie, Indonesia was finally getting a reformist President who preached tolerance and democratic openness. But as the blind Muslim cleric and his family mounted the palace steps, a cry rang out. A dukun--a Javanese soothsayer--who habitually accompanies Wahid called the party to a halt. He said he could see the "big man," the spirit of Suharto, standing in the doorway at the top of the steps. He insisted on carrying out a prayer ritual before the President and his family could enter the building.
Gus Dur, as Wahid is known to his 212 million fellow citizens, waited for the soothsayer to finish before crossing the threshold. "It was the black power of Suharto," says Yenny, the President's daughter. "He was trying to hurt us."
Thus began the bizarre reign of Indonesia's fourth President, a man so contradictory that even his closest aides say they cannot understand him half the time. With one foot in the traditional world of Javanese mysticism and the other in the modern world of globalization, Wahid has an internal compass that spins wildly in all directions. He knows the Koran by heart and can also discuss German soccer players with Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. He tells risque jokes to his "friend" Bill Clinton and then pays court to Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. Of more concern, he is fickle in matters of state, saying he would fire his military chief, General Wiranto, relenting and then actually firing him, all in the space of 24 hours.
When Wahid took office, his unpredictability was interpreted as an asset in a complex mission to cleanse Indonesia of the legacy of Suharto. Eight months on, even his supporters are starting to worry that it might be a liability. The economy is barely holding together, and religious violence is shaking the country to its foundations. Since mid-June, more than 200 Christians and Muslims have been killed in fighting in the Maluku Islands. Having admitted that "the situation is out of control," Wahid two weeks ago declared a state of emergency in the region. But the shooting and bombing have continued, and on June 29 an overloaded boat carrying an estimated 491 refugees who were fleeing the violence sank, leaving just 10 survivors. Last week Wahid suggested that some legislators should be detained for inciting violence--only to retract the statement a day later. The U.S. State Department and the Pope have called for decisive action to end the fighting, but concern is growing that Wahid has no concrete strategy for dealing with any of Indonesia's multiple problems.
Even as he tries to push forward with his grand vision of democratic reform, a malign undertow draws Wahid back into the corrupt old ways of Suharto and his cronies. Financial scandals have been creeping closer to his inner circle. Now his former masseur is being investigated for allegedly embezzling $4.7 million from the state rice-distribution agency.