Prague, 21 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Events in Asia continue to preoccupy the Western press today. Several commentators assess yesterday's surprise presidential election result in Indonesia, while others continue to explore the implications of Pakistan's recent military coup d'etat. There is also some commentary on Russia and on a notable increase in skepticism about joining the European Union in two Central European states: Poland and the Czech Republic.
NEW YORK TIMES: It is important to recognize the remarkable progress Indonesia has made
Under the title "Indonesia's Presidential Surprise," the New York Times writes today in an editorial: "Indonesia's new democratic era got off to a wobbly but encouraging start [yesterday] with the national assembly's unexpected choice of Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of a moderate Muslim civic organization, as president of the world's fourth most populous nation. Wahid is respected for his personal integrity and strong support of human rights. But he is frail after a recent stroke and has had limited experience with the economic issues that now require urgent attention."
The editorial continues: "The final choice was made by [Indonesia's] national assembly, composed of elected and appointed members, not by the voters themselves. This flawed system should be reformed. But even with its defects, it was a big improvement over past elections, in which only a single candidate was allowed to run for president." It adds: "Wahid must now win over supporters of the candidate whose party resoundingly won those June elections, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Thousands of her backers took to the streets Wednesday in violent protest. To her credit, Megawati urged the nation to rally behind Wahid..."
The NYT concludes: "Wahid will need to assert firm civilian control over the army and find new ways of knitting together Indonesia's sprawling archipelago without reliance on repressive force. He must also clean up and revive an economy that has been devastated by decades of officially countenanced corruption... [But] for all the challenges that lie ahead, it is important to recognize the remarkable progress Indonesia has made. After a half-century of authoritarian and corrupt leaders, it can now move toward meaningful democracy."
WASHINGTON POST: Mr. Wahid has often showed more courage and independence than his rival
The Washington Post focuses on "Indonesia's drama... the violent street demonstrations that greeted the election of the new president." It says the protests, in which two people died, "may give an impression that reform has failed, but that is too simplistic a reading. Young, pro-reform backers of the most prominent pro-reform candidate, Megawati Sukarnoputri, took to the streets after an electoral college rejected her candidacy."
The paper's editorial goes on: "[Winner] Abdurrahman Wahid, is -- like his defeated rival -- a political leader with a complicated history, but one that entitles him as much as her to a reform mantle .... Ms. Megawati's loss results more from her own failings than from the system's. Although her party scored best in national elections in June, she failed to form the necessary political coalitions. Her passivity and lack of clear positions not only hurt her chances but also raised legitimate doubts about what kind of president she would be. This is how democratic politics is supposed to work."
The paper adds this: "During the last decades of authoritarian rule, Mr. Wahid worked within the system but often showed more courage and independence than his rival. He heads Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, with 30 million claimed followers, but he has spoken out clearly for tolerance and against a mixing of religion and politics. This," the WP notes, "is crucial in a country with sizable Christian and Hindu minorities and an ethnic Chinese minority that often has been persecuted. "
BERLINGSKE TIDENDE: The ruling Golkar party in Indonesia outmaneuvered the Democratic party's Megawati Sukarnoputri
The Danish daily Berlingske Tidende says in its editorial today that "the ruling Golkar party in Indonesia outmaneuvered the Democratic party's Megawati Sukarnoputri, the clear winner of last June's parliamentary elections. It did so," the paper argues, "by mobilizing opposition against the idea of a female president. That's why today's president of the largest Muslim country in the world is Abdurrahman Wahid."
The editorial continues: "Wahid will have the difficult task of ruling over more than 200 million Indonesians. The role of the military is still unclear. And if the Golkar party gets the vice-presidential post as a reward for its support for Wahid, his health may soon lead to a situation where power again returns into Golkar's hands."
"On the positive side," the paper adds, "it should be noted that the Indonesian parliament has annulled its 1978 decision to annex East Timor. By so doing," the editorial concludes, "Jakarta has committed itself to helping East Timor achieve sovereignty. That means opposing the pro-Indonesian militias in the territory that continue to conduct a terror campaign in an effort to reverse the results of last August's referendum, [which affirmed the people's overwhelming desire for independence]."
ZUERCHER ZEITUNG: The situation remains as explosive as ever
Switzerland's Neue Zuercher Zeitung asks whether yesterday's vote has put Indonesia on a "path toward democracy." The paper's editorial says: "One thing is clear: Indonesia has said its final farewell to the 'Old Regime' of the autocrat Suharto by electing Abdurrahman Wahid as president. But it has yet to be determined whether this means it has also embarked on the road to democracy."
The editorial goes on: "It can hardly be expected that the almost blind and sick Wahid, as the head of state, will symbolize the politically sound condition of the Indonesian islands -- but this cannot be entirely excluded. ... In the final analysis, his election came about because the government party Golkar -- in conjunction with the military -- sought to prevent Megawati Sukarnoputri from gaining the presidency. The will of the people, demonstrated in the streets after the voting took place, continues to be abused."
"Nevertheless," the NZZ says, "Wahid embodies -- as a Muslim leader and liberal and tolerant man of the Islam faith -- a new political beginning., just as Megawati would have done ..... Whether Megawati's followers are prepared to accept the defeat is questionable, however .... The situation therefore remains as explosive as ever."
GLOBE AND DAILY MAIL: In Pakistan, the military is the problem
Turning to Pakistan, a signed editorial by Marcus Gee in Canada's Globe and Mail daily says that much of the West's reaction to the military coup last week was hypocritical. He writes: "Western governments hurried to condemn the coup .... But underneath the rhetoric is a vein of grudging sympathy for the military and its neat little coup. Notice, for example, that no one actually called for the reinstatement of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who won a landslide victory in a free election less than three years ago, only to be bundled off into house arrest last week."
Gee goes on to say: "Many privately argue that a dose of military rule is just what Pakistan needs .... But the issue isn't whether Mr. Sharif was a good leader or a bad one. If bad government were a valid reason for staging a military coup, then half the world's governments would be overthrown tomorrow. The issue is whether the military can do a better job. Pakistan's history suggests that it can't.'
He adds: "Perhaps [coup leader General Pervez Musharraf] really wants to restore probity to government and order to the streets. Perhaps he just wants to replace the 'sham democracy' with a real one. Perhaps he really is different from all the other solemn generals who promised to solve Pakistan's problems and then made them worse. But," Gee concludes, "don't bet on it. In Pakistan, the military is the problem."
WASHINGTON POST: Pakistan has become a sideshow in geopolitical terms
The Washington Post's foreign-affairs columnist Jim Hoagland is less critical of Musharraf in his commentary today. He writes: "Justifiable homicide is one way to think about the coup [that] ... Musharraf staged against the corrupt, inept, democratically elected civilian government in Islamabad last week. Musharraf deserves no applause for what he has done. But thus far he has not earned hanging, either."
Hoagland continues: "'We have hit rock bottom,' Musharraf said in his first address to a nation that must treat that assessment as unbridled optimism. For three decades Pakistan has been ruled by charlatans, crooks, fanatics and a certifiable war criminal or two. The considerable talents and graces individual Pakistanis manifest have been relentlessly driven out of their national politics."
He adds: "Perhaps the new CEO [that is, chief executive officer] in Islamabad has it right. Perhaps things can only go up from here in the Asian subcontinent." But the commentator warns: "[In fact,] there is no democratic regime in Islamabad, however corrupt, that needs encouragement [by the West]. There is no important ally working in concert for mutual goals: [deposed Prime Minister Nawaz] Sharif and presumably Musharraf [both] ignored [U.S.] President [Bill] Clinton's pleas not to go nuclear last year." He ends by saying: "Pakistan has become a sideshow in geopolitical terms."
NEW YORK TIMES: Agreement may eventually come to pass
The New York Times today also runs an editorial on the current difficult U.S.-Russian negotiations on a new Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The paper writes: "Russia has made it clear that it does not like American proposals to renegotiate the 27-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in order to permit America to build defenses against nuclear attacks from unpredictable nations like North Korea."
"But," the paper adds, "Russia's current resistance may be a bargaining ploy. America should keep trying to negotiate mutually agreeable modifications to the treaty. What Washington must not do is abandon the treaty in frustration if such revisions prove beyond immediate reach." The New York Times continues: "The ABM treaty has been an essential component of arms control understandings between Washington and Moscow [for more than 25 years] and under most circumstances [changing it] would not be a good idea."
However, the paper argues, "Washington's concept of a limited missile defense would not require Russia ... to build more missiles to penetrate the new American shield, [and] a limited system would also serve Moscow's interest, since Russian territory is even more exposed than America to attack from rogue states." The editorial sums up: "The interest both sides share in countering the threat from rogue states suggests that ... agreement on carefully drawn changes in the ABM treaty may eventually come to pass."
LOST ANGELES TIMES: Russia has no relevant history to resume
Los Angeles Times Syndicate columnist William Pfaff explores another element of Russia's reality today, its failure to achieve the economic progress that former communist Central European states have attained. He insists on the importance of national histories in explaining this crucial discrepancy, writing: "The difference between what has happened in Central Europe since communism ended and what has occurred in Russia is that the Europeans simply closed a 50-year parenthesis in their histories and have resumed being what they were before, while Russia confronted a void."
"This was foreseeable," Pfaff continues. "Russia has no relevant history to resume. It had to make what it could of a chaotic internal situation and what Western advisers told it to do." In contrast, he says, "before World War Two, what are today the Czech and Slovak republics, together with Hungary and Poland, had close cultural as well as economic ties with Western Europe. They were relatively advanced economies, with important industrial sectors and sophisticated business enterprises and banks."
Pfaff also says that helps explain why the European Union has given the highest priority to expanding to Central Europe. He writes: "The EU's new attention to expansion is welcome and prudent. On the other hand," he adds, "it does something that no-one has dared mention. It settles the question of whether 'Europe' in the future will be an integral union, a European 'superstate,' or an intimate association of sovereign states. It will, at best," he concludes, "be the latter."
SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The would-be new Central European EU members have no alternative
In an analysis for Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Thomas Urban says that "news has been bad recently on two counts for European policy-makers in Poland and the Czech Republic." Writing from Warsaw, he notes that "public support for joining the European Union has declined in both countries -- now being well under 50 percent in Poland. And both Poland and the Czech Republic have been criticized in an EU Executive Commission report for being slow to prepare for membership."
Urban explains the changes in these terms: "Only a few years ago, the mood in both countries was upbeat. The EU membership criteria, said officials in Warsaw and Prague, would be met with ease -- and with widespread public support. But the Czechs, hit by a recent recession, have yet to get their economy back on the move. The Polish economy, in contrast, is still hale and hearty. But Poland faces problems with its legislature, its administration and, in particular, its system of civil justice."
Urban continues: "Polish and Czech champions of EU membership are increasingly coming to feel that officials at EU headquarters in Brussels -- not to mention Berlin, Paris, London, Rome and other EU capitals -- would not be so dreadfully upset if membership talks were to drag on. No-one wants to see the prospective new members actually inside the EU any too soon. The existing 15 members have trouble enough with each other." The commentary concludes: "But the would-be new [Central European] members have no alternative. Their only choice is to fulfill the EU's membership criteria as swiftly as possible. Otherwise, they might drift off in the direction that Belarus has taken."
(RFE/RLs Dora Slaba and Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)