Civilian awaits cue to move centerstage in Jakarta's military-dominated politics

It has been nearly 20 years since an attempted coup in Indonesia and a series of events, including the killing of thousands of people, led to the downfall of President Sukarno and the rise of the New Order regime of President Suharto.

For the moment at least, President Suharto, a skilled political tactician, shows no sign of relinquishing power. But many observers in Jakarta question how long the faithful and seemingly cohesive circle of Western-oriented technocrats and military men around Suharto can stay in power.

As this group drops away, many are looking to the civilian, post-1965 generation for the people who will lead Indonesia in the 1990s. Characterizing these people - who gained their political experience not in the independence struggle but in the events of the late 1960s - is Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, the younger brother of Indonesia's foreign minister, Dr. Mochtar Kusumaatmadja.

Sarwono is seen as his own man, owing little to his brother's high office. And while his brother's star could wane, Sarwono is looked upon as one of the potential leaders of the country, if not in the immediate future, then sometime in the next 10 to 15 years.

He is candid about his own ambitions. ''In this country, if you remain within the political structure and don't go off to become a businessman, you are rewarded. My group has remained loyal - though sometimes critical - and we certainly have a political chance.''

Sarwono was appointed secretary-general of the ruling Golkar party last year - a move that took many by surprise. But to those who had followed his progress since he was a student leader at the Bandung Technical Institute (Indonesia's version of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in the tumultuous years of 1966-67, it seemed he had carefully maneuvered himself into his present position of authority.

He was part of an elite group of students who demonstrated against the old order of President Sukarno and sought a new, more development-oriented approach in Indonesia. He was an influential correspondent for a student weekly, and soon after President Suharto came into power, Sarwono, still in his mid-20s, became a Golkar member of the Indonesian legislature.

Through the years he has been careful to avoid the infighting of factional alliances so common in Indonesian politics. His group, called the ''1966 generation'' is loosely knit, known for its outspoken and sometimes controversial views.

But while some of Sarwono's colleagues dropped out of favor during anti-Japanese and antigovernment riots in 1974, Sarwono kept apart. And while he is often criticized by the military within Golkar, his intelligence and organizational abilities are recognized.

At last year's Golkar congress, there was a marked emphasis on the party becoming a more civilian mass organization and shedding its old-style military image. Sarwono seemed the right man to play a leading role in effecting this change.

Sarwono sees himself as essentially a political animal. ''I studied engineering to please my parents but I hated it and became increasingly political,'' he says.

In so vast and diverse a country, Sarwono says, the primary need is for strong government. He sees Golkar, composed of the military and civil-servant organizations, as the only group capable of exercising such a role. He is a stern critic of the interference by Muslim leaders in politics, describing this as ''the biggest nuisance factor'' in the politics of Indonesia, which is largely Muslim.

He rejects the idea that Indonesia is, or is in danger of becoming, a totalitarian state ruled by an elite group through a monolithic party structure.

The government has through a series of measures neutralized other political groups, particularly the Muslim United Development Party, the PPP. And compared with Golkar, the two other political parties, the PPP and the mainly Christian-based Indonesian Democratic Party, appear to be faction-ridden and disorganized.

Golkar has achieved bigger majorities at each successive election, often amid reports of widespread intimidation and coercion. It is in the interest of all government servants, military personnel, and any group associated with officialdom to join Golkar. In a structure which is perhaps best compared to East European systems, Golkar has its members in key positions in everything from the Atomic Energy Agency to Ping-Pong associations.

And Sarwono seems to have little doubt that Golkar will remain in power and inevitably become, he says, more conservative.

Suharto's immediate successor is likely to come from the military. Two possibilities are the powerful secretary of state and chairman of Golkar, Lt. Gen. Sudharmono, or the outspoken chief of the armed forces, Gen. Benny Murdani.

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