Former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Gus Dur Wahid, right, conversing with Amien Rais, leader of the Central Axis, in 1999. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/National Information and Communication Agency)

Johannes Nugroho: Was Gus Dur a Failure as President?


APRIL 18, 2017

It was on April 19, 1953 that K.H. Wahid Hasyim, a former minister of religious affairs and father of Indonesia's fourth president, Abdurrahman Wahid, died in a car crash while motoring in Cimahi, West Java. His son Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, recounted in an interview with an Australian Indonesianist how he, as a 13-year-old, had been inside the same car but survived the accident.

Forty years later, while traveling in a car with his wife, Wahid was involved in another car accident and survived it, though it left his wife paralyzed from the waist down.

Losing his father at such a tender age would have had long-term psychological effects on the adolescent Wahid. His own near brushes with death would also have left their marks. Would Gus Dur's traumatic life experiences partially explain the erratic way in which he conducted himself as president, which culminated in his impeachment?

To be fair, Wahid was in many ways an exceptional man. As with many other children who lost parents at an early age, his empathy towards the unfortunate, the suffering and the downtrodden was legendary. He is and will probably remain the most liberal-minded Indonesian president in history.

His empathetic nature allowed the West Papuans to call their land Papua again instead of the enforced name of Irian Jaya and re-assert their identity. It was by his presidential decree that the minority ethnic Chinese Indonesians were no longer banned from practicing their culture.

Pioneering the separation between the military and politics after the collapse of Suharto's New Order, Wahid formally ended the dwifungsi, or dual function, of the military. In an act which many still see as political suicide, he even warmed to the idea of establishing diplomatic ties between Indonesia and Israel. The often impressive and eyebrow-raising list goes on.

There is no doubt that Wahid was a progressive leader. It is worth pondering what Indonesia would be like now, had he been able to implement his liberal ideas. However, his generosity in spirit and unconventional outlook were unfortunately counter-matched by his erratic behavior, mismanagement of political alliances and disposition to make arbitrary rules, exacerbated by his inability to see and read things for himself after his stroke.

Compared to President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's two cabinet reshuffles within two years, Wahid's record on shuffling his ministers remains staggeringly unmatched. In his one-and-a-half year as president, he replaced 26 ministers, and in so doing, earned their political enmities and those of their political parties too.

Before his election as president, he started out as a candidate who was acceptable to all factions of Indonesian politics. Chosen as a dark horse candidate by the Central Axis – political parties with Islamic backgrounds headed by Amien Rais, along with the Golkar Party – specifically to prevent Megawati Sukarnoputri from assuming the presidency, he started his tenure with few enemies of any consequence.

By ensuring that Megawati was elected as vice-president, he could mollify her, even when she thought it her right to be elected by the legislature as president because her party had emerged with the largest number of votes from the 1998 election, albeit not with a clear majority.

Being the grandson of the founder of the country's largest Muslim organization, Nadhatul Ulema (NU), as well as being one of its former chairmen, Wahid also had the right pedigree to ascend to the highest office in the land. And yet by 2001, he had alienated most of his political supporters, including Amien Rais and Golkar, and had been on bad terms with the Indonesian Military (TNI) since 2000.

His discord with the TNI had dire consequences for Indonesia when religious conflict broke out between Christians and Muslims in Maluku. In solidarity with their brethren in Maluku, hardline Muslim groups in Java decided to send the militia group Laskar Jihad (the Jihad Soldiers) to help fight the Christians. Owing to his lack of support within the military, Wahid's order that the militia be stopped before reaching its destination went unheeded.

Worse still, it was later found that the jihadis were armed with firearms issued by the military. The jihadis who arrived in Maluku were part of the first ever private militia operating without state intervention in Indonesia, setting a precedent and pattern for hardline Islamism in the years to come. It was no doubt an ironic footnote to Wahid's reign, given the fact that he was, and remains one of the most open-minded and liberal Muslim leaders of any consequence and standing Indonesia has produced.

Wahid's bravado was considerable. In his last days of office, despite the impeachment process supported by the military, he determined to fight by issuing a presidential decree dissolving the legislature, calling for a general election and disbanding Golkar, one which was never tenable under the circumstances. He was discharged as president in July 2001 and replaced by his deputy.

Although his presidency commenced on a promising note of progress on many fronts, its achievements were largely symbolic, such as the restoration of the cultural rights of Chinese Indonesians and the nominal separation between the military and the police. Another of Wahid's important acts was the disbandment of the Ministry of Information, which had stifled press freedom during Suharto's rule, only for it to be revived by his successor two years later.

While Abdurrahman Wahid must necessarily remain an influential figure in Indonesian history – largely by the virtue of his willingness to defend and respect human rights – his lackluster and chaotic presidency represented a lost opportunity for Indonesia.

For many politicians who came after him, his tumultuous reign became intertwined with his liberal agenda, especially his intention to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. With him out of office, the progressive nature of Indonesia's experiment with democracy post-Suharto gradually disappeared, too, ending an era that may never return.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at and on Twitter: @Johannes_nos