Indonesia’s national assembly (MPR), which threw out President Abdurrahman Wahid without ceremony Monday, has with dizzying speed turned from a hall of yawning, fawning yes-men into an unpredictable tiger.
For three decades under the dictatorship of former president Suharto, the then 1,000-member MPR, packed with military officers and Suharto’s cronies and relatives, would meet just once every five years.
Even then, it was hardly worth them turning up, unless meekly rubber stamping and applauding Suharto’s decisions, and collecting their annual allowance could be called a creditable activity.
Suharto’s fall in 1998 and the accompanying clamor for reform changed all that.
“The main difference between the MPR in the old times and now is that the MPR used to be controlled by the government but now it is controlling the government,” said M. Budiyatna, a political observer from the state University of Indonesia.
“Now it is wild, there is no control over it,” he said.
The military faction, under intense pressure from reformists, cut themselves down to 38 members instead of 75, and narrowly escaped being tossed out altogether.
The MPR slashed its own numbers to 700, the lower house or DPR from 600 to 500, and Suharto’s children and cronies found themselves ejected.
Then slowly in 1999, after the country’s freest elections in decades put electees rather than chosen favorites into the seats of the DPR — all of whom also sit in the MPR — the lower house started flexing its muscles and disputing presidential and ministerial decisions.
“That the DPR and the MPR can now equal the (power of the) president is a political reality,” said Hendardi, executive director of the Association for Legal Aid and Human Rights.
He noted the MPR was, according to the constitution, the highest state body, and that the DPR composed the majority of its membership.
Indonesians have been treated to the first tussles they had ever seen between the executive and the legislature over such basic issues as the budget, price hikes and electricity rates.
Most of the action has been in the DPR, and the long-running joke about MPR head Amien Rais, a failed presidential hopeful, was that he was bored and jealous of the excitement now being seen in the lower house.
Budiyatna said the fact that members of the legislature were chosen by their parties according to how many votes the party polled lay at the root of the MPR’s power.
If members were instead directly elected they would be more restrained, fearing they might not to be reelected, he said.
Both sides throughout the leadership crisis which has dragged on for more than three months, paralyzing the government, have often shakily claimed the country’s hazy 1945 constitution is on their side.
Legal experts mostly agree the document could well have been drafted to be intentionally fuzzy, designed to favor a strong presidency and an unquestioning parliament.
Monday’s often protracted debate within the MPR about the very modalities of the impeachment process, showed just how murky the constitution is and how the assembly was entering uncharted waters.
Once never questioned during the Suharto era, it is due for revision soon — but by the MPR.
And political analyst Daniel Dhakidae, head of the research department of Kompas newspaper, said the current impasse could cause political stalemate.
“The appointment of Megawati as a new president carries the risk of a dual presidency,” he said.