Changes breathe fresh air into Indonesian democracy.
Simple but significant changes occurring in Indonesian politics are breathing fresh air into the country's democratic institutions once long-dominated by then President Suharto, who stepped down in May last year.
President B.J. Habibie was booed as he entered the assembly hall where 655 members of the 700-strong People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), Indonesia's highest state authority, on Friday started its first general session.
When the session's chairman Suyitno Haryo Sudiro admonished the booing MPR members, they clapped. Such booing, ostensibly directed at an Indonesian president, has never occurred in the past.
"I really regret it," Akbar Tanjung, chairman of the ruling Golkar party, told reporters after the session. "He (Habibie) is our head of state. He should be treated with respect, maybe not in his personal capacity, but the institution he represents."
Guruh Sukarnoputra, younger brother of presidential front-runner Megawati Sukarnoputri, who is also chairwoman of the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-Perjuangan), agreed with Tanjung.
"Respect for the president is still needed. The president has been elected by the people's representatives," he said.
Most MPR members broke a long-standing tradition of standing in respect as the Indonesian president enters the assembly hall.
The members objected to several old protocols, including the opening speech by the president. They insisted that the MPR, not the presidency, is the state's highest authority as stipulated in the country's 1945 Constitution.
"During the Thursday rehearsal for the general session opening ceremony, all the assembly members agreed that the president does not have to address the MPR," Yusril Ihza Mahendra, chairman of the Crescent-Star Party, told reporters.
"It is good for democracy," said Guruh, a representative of PDI-Perjuangan. "It was a change that was not engineered, but spontaneously came from the people's representatives."
The MPR members also refused to attend an official ceremony, led by Habibie, at the Lubang Buaya Monument in eastern Jakarta on Friday morning to commemorate the military's crushing Oct. 1, 1965, of an alleged coup attempt by the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party.
In the past, it was mandatory for MPR members to attend the commemoration rites.
Golkar has picked Habibie as its candidate in the MPR's election for Indonesian president. The vote is expected within three weeks.
But some of Habibie's less-popular political actions, such as his consent to the entry of a multinational force into East Timor, may have dimmed his chances of formally succeeding Suharto.
When Suharto resigned he appointed Habibie, who was then vice president, as his successor, but the appointment was never formalized by the MPR.
Tanjung has admitted that should opposition to Habibie's candidacy intensify, Golkar may be forced to select a new candidate.
On Wednesday, an alliance of the National Mandate Party (PAN) and Muslim-oriented parties, known as the "central axis force," suggested that Habibie must withdraw from the presidential race.
Differences on the date of the presidential election are also overshadowing the assembly session.
Six major parties have agreed the election should be held between Oct. 22 and Nov. 1. PDI-Perjuangan, however, insisted it take place between Oct. 5 and 14, soon after the first general session ends.
"Personally, I agree that the presidential election must be accelerated because there are many pressing issues that must be solved," Guruh said. "Even one day is a precious day," he said.
Tanjung said that under a possible compromise, the election may take place earlier than Oct. 22 but later than Oct. 5.
In the past, political parties had no authority to decide the schedule of a presidential election. It was the assembly's secretary general who decided.
With divergent opinions becoming more prominent, some MPR members have predicted many decisions will be reached only after a vote. The move would reflect a new political culture which departs from the previous practice of "musyawarah untuk mufakat" (seeking a compromise to reach a consensus).
"That is the dynamic of the politics we have today because we are trying to bring openness into the country's politics," Golkar treasurer Fadel Muhammad said.
The MPR assembly is composed of the 462 members elected to the House of Representatives in the June 7 general election, 38 Indonesian military and police representatives, 135 regional representatives and 65 representatives of various interest groups.
Megawati's PDI-Perjuangan topped the June 7 polls, winning 153 seats. Golkar finished second with 120 seats. PAN won 51 seats, while Muslim parties that have joined PAN in the central axis force have a total of 119 seats.
The central axis force has picked Abdurrahman Wahid, chairman of the 40-million-strong Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, as its presidential candidate to compete with Habibie and Megawati.