Some of the first well-wishers to call on Indonesia's new leader, Abdurrahman Wahid, were struck by the casual air he has brought to Indonesia's stately presidential palace. He chatted amiably, he insisted on being called by his nickname, Gus Dur, and he sometimes propped a bare foot up on the sofa.
The informality is familiar to those who have known Gus Dur -- the honorific title Gus with a diminutive version of his surname -- as the leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization. At home, he often greeted visitors barefoot and answered his own telephone. His string of jokes pilloried political players of the day. And just last week, after a hectic morning of appointments, he fell asleep during an interview with a reporter, dozing off in the middle of his own sentence.
Those all-too-human qualities, along with his near-blindness, have made Wahid an endearing, respected and beloved figure here, the kindly if eccentric uncle known as much for his erratic statements as for his intellect, acumen and understated ambition.
But now, after a week of dramatic politics that elevated Wahid to the country's highest office on Wednesday, Indonesians are pausing for breath and quietly asking: Is he really up to pulling this vast and unruly country -- the world's fourth-most populous, with 200 million inhabitants scattered over an archipelago of 13,500 islands -- out of its political and economic crisis?
The problems are manifold. Indonesia is wracked by ethnic and religious violence. East Timor's vote for independence has emboldened separatists in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya. Both Wahid and Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the popular leader he defeated for the presidency, are from Indonesia's main island of Java, and so outlying islands are again feeling disenfranchised. Perhaps most dangerous, the still-powerful military is feeling its influence waning in the new democratic era and must be persuaded to submit to civilian rule.
Economically, the country has not recovered from the meltdown of 1997-98. The budget is $10 billion short and repayment of principle on foreign debt is scheduled to skyrocket to $5 billion next year and $9 billion in 2001. Most banks are bankrupt and foreign support for a re-capitalization plan was suspended because of a banking scandal involving the discredited former government. The urban poor and unemployed who supported the reform movement are growing impatient to see the fruits of change.
Amid all these problems, a sobering reality is dawning on people: The new president is virtually blind; he moves slowly after a stroke last year that put him in a coma and necessitated brain surgery; and he needs to be led around by aides.
His second-oldest daughter usually leads him. But when Wahid went to the stage for his swearing in and later to the lectern to give his inaugural speech, it was two uniformed military aides who escorted him and guided his hand as he signed his name in a book.
The scene raised some troubling questions. Would the military be the power behind a president who needs constant aid? Would the presidential palace become the scene of political intrigue, with advisers plotting to deceive the blind leader? And who would emerge to speak for him? Family members? Military adjutants? Leaders of his political party? Or Muslim scholars from his Java-based Nahdlatul Ulama organization?
Wahid's health problems were the reason few here took his presidential bid seriously at first. It was largely expected he would drop out at the last minute in favor of Megawati, the front-runner by virtue of her party winning June's parliamentary elections. But when the unpopular outgoing president, B.J. Habibie, dropped out just before the vote and Habibie's party, Golkar, threw its support to Wahid to block Megawati, Wahid emerged the surprising winner.
"The choice was between Megawati and Gus Dur," said Golkar deputy chairman Marzuki Darusman, explaining why party members backed the ailing Wahid. "It was not because they were for Gus Dur, but because they were opposed to Megawati."
Marzuki said the party opposed her for several reasons: "gender, capability, her association with the past (as the daughter of founding president, Sukarno), ideology. Perhaps radical economics and the populist movement." If Megawati had been elected, he said, Golkar members saw a strong likelihood of violence from elements vehemently opposed to her.
Marzuki said Golkar was well aware of Wahid's frailty. "The concern was that he would be constricted in his functioning," he said. "But the whole point of electing him was to avoid bloodshed. There was a real possibility of open conflict."
Having a president who is unable to read documents will require an unusual daily office routine. As Wahid forms his government, the format is only now beginning to take shape.
One step, say political insiders, is to reduce the number of documents on the president's desk by forming "advisory councils" of outside experts. These councils, for economic, national security and social policies, would meet regularly to brief Wahid and allow him to decide orally. Implementation would then likely be coordinated by two new chief-of-staff jobs, one under the president, the other under Megawati.
Wahid campaigned extensively for the June elections on behalf of his National Awakening Party and he seems equally eager to travel now. He plans to go to Bali on Sunday for his first major address as president and to placate disappointed Megawati supporters there. He also has told ambassadors from neighboring Southeast Asian countries that he would like to travel to Manila next month for a regional summit conference.
Aides who have met with Wahid over the past two days have said he plans a slimmed-down administration that balances technocrats with the need to accommodate the myriad political factions in the 700-member People's Consultative Assembly that elected him. A cabinet announcement is planned for Oct. 28, but the broad contours of the government have begun to emerge.
Wahid's party placed a distant fourth in the June elections, but is likely to receive some plum positions, possibly including foreign minister. Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle also looks set to gain several positions, probably including an economic post for Kwik Kian Gie, a respected economist and Megawati aide. Appointing Kwik, who is of Chinese origin, also would also help assuage Indonesia's ethnic Chinese, who were spooked by last year's anti-Chinese violence.
One who may find his power diminished is the armed forces commander and defense minister, Gen. Wiranto. Wiranto had been nominated for vice president after Wahid was elected, but the new president prevailed on him to step aside in favor of Megawati, sources said. Wiranto did withdraw his nomination, but sources said the military is angry about the Wahid-Megawati tandem and the fact that the armed forces have been left out of this new, elected power equation.
One of Wahid's most difficult early tasks will be to persuade the military, which has been the main power in Indonesia since it became independent in 1945, to stay in the barracks. "The biggest problem is going to be the military," one aide said. "A lot of them are really upset. Wiranto really wanted the [vice president's] job."
Wahid's initial plan was to appoint a civilian defense minister to underline the importance of civilian control. But palace aides and others said that plan has now been scrapped. "They would never accept that," said one insider of the military.