Habibie Jeebies

Suharto is gone - at least officially. But the Indonesian crisis, economic and political, goes on.

Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, the vice president and a Suharto confidante, became president yesterday when President Suharto resigned following riots in the streets and urgings from politicians at home and abroad.

But will Mr. Habibie now only put "new wine into an old bottle," an old political system that will destructively shatter? Or is he willing to offer up a new bottle, moving against pervasive nepotism and other corruption and toward real democracy?

First Habibie must keep the support of the military if he is to show himself to be more than an interim figure. Then there are the students and other dissidents. Their early reaction is that Suharto's departure is a good first step but that Habibie is merely his lackey. The new president's offer to appoint a cabinet free from "corruption, collusion, and nepotism" is a hopeful sign he hears the protesters and will make changes.

Asian markets rallied yesterday, taking hope that Suharto's exit meant reform was on the way. But Indonesia's deep economic crisis is far from solved. Last month, the International Monetary Fund forecast that the nation's GDP would fall by 5 percent this year. That already looks too optimistic. Some economists say 15 or 20 percent is possible. Exports and foreign exchange reserves have dropped dramatically. Price hikes have already hurt ordinary Indonesians, sending them into the streets in protest. Food shortages loom in Jakarta.

The IMF has suspended its $43 billion rescue package in order to rethink. Any new pact should include some temporary return to price controls on food and fuel to ease suffering.

Habibie plans to rule until 2003, the end of Suharto's term. Thus the promise of early elections Suharto made earlier this week seems lost for now.

In his departing speech, Suharto asked "forgiveness if there [were] any mistakes or shortcomings" during his presidency. Despite his many shortcomings, not the least his cruel crackdown on East Timor, he oversaw an economic miracle that only went sour last year. But his legacy won't be written until his role in the transition has been played. Will he remove himself from wielding power behind the scenes? Earlier remarks suggest he may see himself as a Pandito, a helpful sage. Perhaps he wants to "lead from behind," presumably as Lee Kuan Yew does in Singapore.

But Suharto pulling puppet strings on Habibie isn't what the new president - or Indonesia - needs right now.

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