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Indonesia's New President

Surprising Upset in Archipelago's First Free Elections

By Ricco Villanueva Siasoco

This article was posted on October 20, 1999

President Wahid

Newly-elected President Abdurrahman Wahid clasps the hand of rival Megawati Sukarnoputiri on October 20, 1999. (Source/AP)

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In a surprising upset, the Indonesian parliament elected Abdurrahman Wahid as the new president of Indonesia on October 20, 1999. The groundbreaking vote was the archipelago's first free presidential election.

Wahid's upset of Megawati Sukarnoputiri—daughter of former President Sukarno—was devastating for the tens of thousands of Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) supporters. The next day, however, pro-Megawati supporters were calmed by Megawati's appointment as the Vice President—of particular importance because many believe Wahid's poor health will prevent him from completing his five-year term.

Megawati unable to rally majority

In the parliamentary elections that took place earlier this year on June 7, Megawati's party, the PDI-P, was the clear frontrunner. Megawati was unable, however, to garner necessary majority support from the 700-member parliament to secure the presidency. Critics of Megawati, a woman and first-time candidate, worried over her inexperience in leading the world's largest Islamic nation as well as her vague stance on the issues facing the country.

Wahid appeared with Megawati during his inaugural address. He clasped the hand of his formal rival and said, "Together with Megawati, I celebrate our independence and freedom." Riots commenced outside the capital in Jakarta killing at least one person, and some feared a revolution in the coming days.

Golkar Party's 11th-hour scramble

Only hours before the vote, former president B.J. Habibie withdrew from the nation's first free elections, leaving his Golkar Party without a candidate. Chairman Akbar Tanjung was announced as the party's replacement candidate, but Tanjung withdrew shortly thereafter.

Wahid in poor health

The poor health of 59-year-old Wahid, who is better known by his nickname Gus Dur, has preoccupied some Indonesians. A stroke more than a year ago—Wahir's second in recent years—left him nearly blind.

Wahid is a moderate who has called for religious tolerance in this diverse archipelago of Islam, Christian, and Hindu people. Highly and widely respected in Indonesia, Wahid was able to be openly critical of Suharto's policies during his reign without suffering repercussions.

Wahid faces an uphill battle in leading Indonesia, with its history of violent unrest. "Just as our founding president, Sukarno, taught us, we have great reasons to be a unified nation," Wahid said in his inaugural speech. "This is something that we must continue to follow today."

For more information about Abdurrahman Wahid:


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