Indonesia's New No. 2: Not Up to IMF Muster?

Foreign investors, others want a successor to Suharto. Habibie, to be elected March 11, may not be the real one.

When Asian leaders consider retirement they have more to worry about than finding hobbies and arranging tee times. There is the possibility of angry mobs hounding them from office. Or vengeful successors making their lives miserable.

President Suharto has ruled Indonesia for a third of a century, but seems to approach the prospect of leaving office by ignoring it completely. His swearing-in March 11 begins his seventh five-year term as president. Each time around, he's selected a different vice president to prevent the emergence of an heir apparent. By all accounts, Mr. Suharto hasn't come close to designating a successor.

Under different circumstances, the topic of Indonesia's political transition might be a local story. But the country's economic crisis - and the ripple effect that instability here could have on other Asian economies and the rest of the world - has heightened interest in Suharto's successor.

For his seventh term, Suharto has chosen Research and Technology Minister B.J. Habibie for Indonesia's No. 2 spot. A Germain-trained aerospace engineer, he is known at home and abroad as a tireless promoter of Indonesia's technological future, and an "implementer."

If Suharto thinks about succession at all, and some analysts believe he does not, many Indonesians believe he worries most about protecting the interests of his family. His children and friends have profited immensely during his rule, and it is often said here that he wants to ensure that they are in good hands should he step down or die in office. Mr. Habibie, who first met Suharto during his teens, seems close enough to the president to satisfy this concern.

Habibie may not be successor

But even though Suharto has been in power a very long time and is now facing a rising tide of discontent caused by economic hardship, Indonesian analysts insist that Habibie is not Suharto's idea of presidential material.

"Of all the contenders he is the weakest," says Aburrahman Wahid, the head of 32-million member Muslim organization called the Nahdatul Ulama, which translates to "religious scholars."

"Suharto does not intend Habibie to become president," adds analyst Hadi Soesastro of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private research institute in Jakarta. "He has chosen Habibie because Habibie cannot get the support of the people and is not a threat."

Habibie has, at best, only the grudging support of the military, whose backing is vital. The bottom line is that the question of succession remains very much open.

Not IMF material

More immediately, a vice president Habibie seems likely to exacerbate tensions between Indonesia and the International Monetary Fund. The Washington-based lending agency is offering Indonesia's government loans worth $43 billion to help the country out of its economic crisis. The problem is that the IMF is also demanding reforms that threaten Indonesia's power structure - such as limitations on patronage - and that go against the thinking of the new vice president.

Habibie is part technocrat, part economic nationalist. He favors government spending to develop high-tech industries that may operate at a loss for many years but that will eventually create the sort of economy that can call its own shots. In essence, he wants to prevent Indonesia from merely being a supplier of low-cost labor to Western corporations.

One strategic industry he has shepherded is airplanes. IPTN is an manufacturer of passenger aircraft founded by Habibie that even many Indonesians say is destined to fail as it goes up against Boeing and Airbus. Critics say it is badly managed and soaks up money that the government can no longer afford to spend.

Habibie is also criticized for his leadership style. "If you look at the many organizations he has headed, none of them function effectively," says Mr. Soesastro, noting that Habibie has a reputation for "thinking he is above everyone else," with the obvious exception of the president, whom he has referred to as "super-genius Suharto."

A third defining feature is his leadership of a group of Muslim intellectuals, some of whom have voiced resentment over the division of wealth in Indonesia. The country's tiny Chinese minority controls the majority of the economy. Indonesian Islam is extremely tolerant, but occasionally worries arise that some Muslims are scheming for leverage and are using Habibie to gain influence. Once in power, this theory says, they would rearrange things in unpleasant and undemocratic ways.

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