Abdurrahman Wahid (1940-2009)
In what would be one of the most bizarre curtain calls ever made by a politician, President Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia appeared briefly on the steps of his palace on the night of July 23rd 2001, wearing striped shorts, a polo T-shirt and sandals. With the help of a bodyguard and his daughter Yenni, who served as a personal aide to the half-blind and senile president, Wahid awkwardly waved at ever-dwindling supporters gathered on the other side of razor wire barricades.
Wahid’s impeachment earlier that day ended his erratic yet promising 2-year presidency. A cultured Muslim cleric who read widely (he was the only Muslim leader to defend Salman Rushdie) and loved Beethoven, Wahid ushered in an era of tolerance, promoted rights of minorities and of non-Muslims and apologized for Indonesian atrocities in East Timor.
Nonetheless, when Wahid–who died last week on 31st December 2009–inherited Indonesia in 1999, it was a dysfunctional country meandering directionless after three decades of authoritarian rule. Inexperienced in statecraft, he improvised everything. An informal and impulsive prankster, Wahid also tended to fall asleep publicly; at one parliamentary session dozed off several times during the reading of his own speech, which he delegated because of his blindness. (An aide had to wake him each time by giving him a candy to suck on).
After declaring a state of emergency that was widely ignored, Wahid was impeached. It was a move engineered by his vice-president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who as the daughter of Indonesia’s founding leader Sukarno, regarded the presidency as hers by birthright. She would prove to be even more inexperienced and a bigger failure than Wahid.