A leading Muslim reformist was chosen as the speaker of Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) in a hotly contested assembly vote held October 3. In a setback for presidential hopeful Megawati Sukarnopoutri, National Mandate Party (PAN) leader Amien Rais attained the last-minute backing of the ruling Golkar party and the influential Muslim leader, Abdurrahman Wahid, to defeat Sukarnopoutri's ally and National Awakening Party (PKB) chief, Mahtori Abdul Djalil.
While Rais' election has more to do with an apparent fall-out between Sukarnopoutri and her allies in the MPR than his own political power base, his installation at the head of the assembly has important implications for the future of Indonesian politics. Most importantly, Rais now heads the assembly that will select Indonesia's new president in a few weeks.
Rais' PAN, a coalition that comprises members of the urban Muslim middle-class and intellectuals formerly associated with Indonesia's now defunct socialist party, came in fifth place in a referendum vote held this past spring. But the failure of the PAN to achieve a broad power base similar to Sukarnopoutri's Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) or even the PKB, founded by Wahid and currently headed by Djalil, belies Rais' influence as a social leader.
Rais has a doctorate in politics from the University of Chicago and according to a 1998 article by Ahmad Faiz of Malaysia's International Movement for a Just World, is considered by many Westerners and Indonesians alike to be one of the most prominent and sound-minded intellectuals in the country.
Rais was instrumental in forming the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI), which achieved support from Suharto and was widely viewed a vehicle for change from within the system before Suharto's abdication. According to a June 1 report by Anton Alifandi of the BBC's Indonesian Service, Rais became known as "the champion of the rights of Muslims who he felt were under-represented both politically and economically." In the years before Suharto's downfall, Rais broke with the dictator and subsequently became the main figurehead of the Reformasai popular movement that eventually forced Suharto from power. Immediately following Suharto's fall, Rais became the chief negotiator with B.J. Habibie. Student protesters reportedly favored Rais' own ascendance as Indonesia's next president. But according to the BBC on October 4, Rais has recently backed the PKB's Wahid for president.
Through all the turmoil of the recent years, Rais seems to have maintained a clear message of reform. In the recent months he has held alliances with all the major factions, including the PDI-P, the Golkar party and the influential ABRI, or Indonesian military. Although more radical opposition to the government has sometimes been critical of his dealings with ABRI and the Golkar party, Rais has never been afraid to speak his mind. He strongly favors the reform of Indonesia's 1945 constitution and can perhaps be expected to head an anticipated drive in the MPR to limit the power of the presidency and expand that of the legislature, a change for which Rais has consistently campaigned.
When asked what motivated him to first speak out against Suharto and mobilize student support when other leaders and Non-Governmental Organizations were afraid or unwilling to speak out, Rais told a July 1998 gathering at the University of Malaya that he "considered it as wajib kifayah (religious and social obligation) to speak up against what was clearly wrong ... So, Bismillah (in the name of Allah), I braved myself to be the one to say it," as quoted by Faiz of the International Movement for a Just World. Rais' religious motivations, genuine or otherwise, seem accentuated by a clear consistency of purpose: change towards what a Megastories.com profile of the leader's thought calls an inclusive Muslim democracy.
As speaker of Indonesia's newly empowered national assembly, Rais has been accorded a position worthy of his proven intelligence and commitment to change even if he did not attain the position because of his own political power base. The inconsistency in terms of political alliances that would seem to cast Rais as an outsider in the main-line power struggles could prove a valuable asset in Indonesia's continued push towards reform. The election of Rais could have a calming effect on what seems to be an increasingly embittered political atmosphere. The uncompromising need for reform in Indonesia, as represented by Rais' consistent efforts, has to be able to cut across party lines and mobilize various factions. Rais' position as an outsider, coupled with his past connection to the Reformasai movement, could prove an important step forward in Indonesia's path towards reform.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com