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Thursday, October 21, 1999 Published at 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Analysis: Indonesia's Islamic presidency?

Mr Wahid (seated right) meets Islamic leaders after his victory

By BBC religious affairs correspondent Jane Little

The election of Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid as president raises many questions about the future of Indonesia, not least of which is whether he will bring a more Islamic agenda.

Indonesia Flashpoints
As head of the 30-million-strong Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama, he has a large and loyal following in what is the most populous Muslim country in the world.

But Mr Wahid is an unpredictable character with very much his own vision.

Earlier this year, I spoke to Mr Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, at his home on the outskirts of Jakarta.

"We would like to see democracy established in Indonesia, the rule of law, equality for all citizens, freedom of the press and the honest accountability of the government to the people," he told me then.

The cleric, who is almost blind, was clearly still suffering the effects of two strokes.

He told me how he supported Megawati Sukarnoputri for president.

Seven months later they have fallen out, he has become president and Megawati's furious supporters took to the streets after the vote.

Moderate cleric

Mr Wahid may not be universally admired, but he is influential.

"His power comes from the strength of his personality", says Anton Alifandi of the BBC's Indonesian Service.

"He's long been involved in the struggle for democracy under Suharto. He's also known as an intellectual and as a moderate cleric who on many occasions has defended the rights of minorities in Indonesia."

Local customs

Nearly 90% of Indonesia's huge population is Muslim, but it is a unique brand of Islam.

[ image: Indonesia practises its own brand of Islam]
Indonesia practises its own brand of Islam
Local traditions and customs across this vast archipelago blend with Islamic beliefs, while rival Islamic social groups reflect regional variations.

There has never been an Islamic government in Indonesia and Abdurrahman Wahid is not about to introduce one, according to regional expert Michael Liefer.

"I would not expect Abdurrahman Wahid to articulate an Islamic agenda.

"In fact although he's a devout Muslim and leads an organisation where people are involved in social and educational activities of an Islamic kind, he has set his face against the idea of an Islamic state.

"He believes that religion is a matter of personal devotion and not something to be stamped on the identity of the state," says Mr Liefer.

Five principles

The new president is in fact one of the staunchest proponents of Pancasila, the philosophy which underpins the 1945 constitution.

It sets out five principles for the Indonesian nation including religious pluralism and democracy.

Although damaged by the corruption of the Suharto years, faith in the essence of Pancasila remains intact. Nearly all Muslim groups support it.

Abdurrahman Wahid, prior to the elections, said it just needed to be cleaned up.

"We will improve the procedures because now we have many laws contradictory to democracy are enacted under the name of Pancasila so we must clean Pancasila of those bad images," he said.

Role of Islam

Mr Wahid may now work with former rival Amien Rais, who nominated him for president, and is now speaker of parliament.

[ image: Parliament speaker Amien Rais could become a key ally]
Parliament speaker Amien Rais could become a key ally
The new government will have enormous economic, ethnic and political problems to deal with.

Rizal Sukma, from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta, believes democracy now has its best chance under Mr Wahid's leadership.

"If you look at the process of the election of Wahid, it demonstrates that Indonesia can really become the third-largest democracy on earth," says Mr Sukma.

"The role of big Islamic organisations will be very very significant in pushing forward that process."

The Sufi cleric who spends much of his time meditating has some hard political decisions ahead.

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