The Legacy of Abdurrahman Wahid, Gus Dur, Fourth President of the Republic of Indonesia
December 30, 2009
Abdurrahman Wahid passed away this evening in Jakarta after a long battle with kidney disorder, heart disease and diabetes. He was 69 years old. A State Funeral will be held tomorrow in Indonesia, with all flags flying at half mast in his honor.
He will be remembered in Indonesian history as the 4th President of the Republic and the leader who signified the initial breaking of General Soeharto’s iron-clad grasp on Indonesian politics and people. He also will be remembered as the embodiment of Indonesia’s modern and moderate interpretation of Islam. While it could be argued that Wahid was a political opportunist, he was undeniably an expert strategist who perhaps uniquely understood how to navigate a path toward empowerment of the Indonesian people as the Soeharto regime crumbled amidst Reformasi, the political reform movement, and the disintegration of the Indonesian economy amidst the Asian financial crisis.
On a personal level, those who knew him will remember his rapier wit and sense of humor. Gus Dur once told a group of American business leaders that I brought to meet him in Jakarta, “Ah, yes … I prefer General Electric to the generals that are supposedly guarding me!” As his military escort cringed, his visitors broke into wide smiles.
Gus Dur’s political legacy in Indonesia will be as a key leader of the reform movement and the President who created, if not intentionally, the bridge to the selection by Indonesia’s parliament and the later election of Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose ascendance signified the end of the Soeharto era and the entrenchment of democracy in Indonesia.
Many would argue that Wahid’s maneuvering and political opportunism, which resulted in his becoming President in October 1999 even though his party held almost two-thirds fewer votes that that of his fellow reformer Megawati, only delayed Megawati’s ultimate arrival in Merdeka Square. Others could make that case that his intervention and indeed his term in office from October 1999 to 2001, was a necessary step in Indonesia’s path to democracy and that without his leadership, the Indonesian military may have stepped in and strangled the democratic movement in its crib.
During his term, President Wahid worked tirelessly to undue many of the untouchable issues that undermined Indonesia society under Soeharto including initiating peace talks with rebel forces in Aceh, undoing prohibitions against Chinese language, script and culture, and seeking, unsuccessfully, to open ties with Israel.
However, Wahid’s term was not distinguished by decisiveness or consistency of policies. He will be seen in history as a transition figure in Indonesia’s path to democracy. His term ended with his eventual impeachment by the upper house of Indonesia’s legislature the MPR. He was replaced by President Megawati in July 2001.
Gus Dur was an important member of the Reformasi movement and founder of the moderate Islamic party, Partai Kebangkitan Bangsa (PKB) or the National Awakening Party.
Legacy of Moderate Islam
Perhaps more enduring than his political legacy will be Gus Dur’s embodiment of modern moderate Islam in Indonesia. As leader of Indonesia’s largest independent Islamic organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Wahid preached and practiced a moderate interpretation of Islam – one in which faith is deeply personal and not directed by the state.
Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world and is home to the world largest Muslim population. The overwhelming majority of its people practice a very moderate Islam, and the radical groups that have executed inhuman terrorist acts in Bali and Jakarta are a perfect example of a tiny minority stealing the headlines and creating real misunderstanding about Indonesia and its people. Gus Dur once said, “The deep problem is that people use religion wrongly in pursuit of victory and triumph. This sad fact then leads to conflict with people who have different beliefs.”
President Wahid is succeeded by members of his family including his wife Sinta Nuriyah and four daughters: Alissa Qotrunnada Munawaroh, Zannuba Arifah Chafsoh (known as Yenny), Annita Hayatunnufus, and Inayah Wulandari. His second daughter Yenny is active in Indonesian politics.