Post-Suharto, an Uneasy Glee

Indonesians shook off a 32-year autocrat, but new leader is in a fragile position.

Pity B.J. Habibie.

It's hard to imagine someone taking the helm of a nation amid lower expectations.

Indonesia's students and other critics of former President Suharto are rejoicing over the resignation of the longtime ruler, but they are quick to emphasize that their struggle for a less dictatorial government is not over.

Yesterday's swearing-in of Mr. Habibie as Indonesia's third president since 1949, the year the people of this mass of islands along the equator won independence from Holland, has eased the sense of crisis here. But the new leader is under pressure to show a skeptical nation and international audience that he can set the country back on the track.

"It's better for Habibie to concede [his] government as temporary because I think the people want to have the soonest possible general elections," says Amien Rais, the most prominent leader of the campaign to oust Suharto.

"I am keenly aware that this is an enormous challenge," Habibie said in a taped address played on Indonesian television last night. He went on to praise the student movement as "a fresh current which has been carrying us into the 21st century," and promised a "professional Cabinet with a high degree of competence and integrity."

At the close of his brief speech he tenderly praised his predecessor and mentor, who he said was responsible for creating "the foundation of our way of life."

That may have been a political risk, since Suharto has been the object of intense vilification and frustration in recent months. Habibie's extensive connections with Suharto are perhaps his greatest domestic liability.

Internationally, the German-trained aeronautical engineer has to overcome a reputation for pursuing nationalistic economic strategies that critics call overambitious and inappropriate, especially in this time of economic collapse.

Markets disliked Habibie

When Suharto selected him as vice president in January, markets reacted negatively and analysts said the choice was a sign that the former president was not serious about pursuing the reforms that the international community is requiring of Indonesia in exchange for more than $40 billion in emergency loans. That package is now on hold as Indonesia's rescuers wait to see if stability is restored.

A native of the island of Sulawesi, Habibie was in his teens when he met Suharto, then a military officer. In 1974 then-President Suharto invited Habibie back from Germany to help develop their nation and named him research and technology minister four years later.

In that capacity Habibie sought to develop Indonesia as a center for high technology, a strategy that the smaller neighboring state of Malaysia has pursued successfully. Many praise his goal - to keep Indonesia from being a low-wage manufacturer for foreign companies - but projects such as the creation of a local aircraft industry have proven costly and unworkable.

"The economic crisis of the past 10 months has made it impossible for anyone, including Habibie, to embark on this technology-first strategy," says Juwono Sudarsono, minister for the environment in the Cabinet dissolved yesterday. Indonesia's economic policy "has to be broad-based manufacturing and it has to have some degree of a social safety net however expensive it is for the government," he said.

Habibie drew controversy by helping to found a group of Muslim intellectuals in 1990. Indonesian Islam is extremely low-key, and there is much concern here that mixing religion with politics could produce disastrous results. He has also alienated members of the military by involving himself in their weapons procurement schemes and forcing them to take equipment not of their choosing.

The military blocked his becoming vice president in 1993 but Suharto was adamant earlier this year that his longtime friend be given the position. Despite the market reaction and internal dissension, Suharto prevailed.

Military backed the new leader

Yesterday, just after Habibie read the oath of office, armed forces chief General Wiranto stepped to the microphone. "We support ... the ascension of the vice president," he said, although many analysts believe military leaders dislike their new president.

Even though some parts of Indonesian society have been hoping the military as an institution and Wiranto in particular would take over from Suharto in the interest of stability and the economy, the generals have apparently decided to avoid that step. Their decision to abide with Habibie is essentially a decision to conform to the Constitution.

Given that Habibie is not a politician, his only real backing comes from some Muslims and the former president, who may need Habibie's support to avoid attempts at prosecution or recrimination.

When to prosecute Suharto

"Suharto must be given a break to enjoy private life," says Mr. Rais, the opposition leader. "When the situation [reaches stability], we can talk about the possibility of bringing Suharto to fair and just legal proceedings."

Defending Suharto from his critics and persecutors, as the military is also pledged to do, is not going to boost Habibie's political standing among Indonesians interested in reform. Energized by their success in toppling Suharto, many see Habibie as a new challenge.

"Politically the problem has not been solved yet," says another ex-Cabinet minister, but one who declined to speak for attribution. "We have only overcome one hurdle." It remains to be seen whether student dissatisfaction with Habibie will again lead to protests.

Still, the entire country isn't against him. Many Indonesians are happy with the sudden sense of calm that has accompanied Suharto's departure, however temporary.

Political analyst Salim Said argues that Habibie has a chance to prove himself by naming a progressive and reform-oriented Cabinet. And he is universally acknowledged as an intelligent man, although he is sometimes accused of talking too much. "He should listen or he's doomed to failure," Mr. Said adds.

There is a difference between the relief of the tension involving the presidency and the question of the continuity and legitimacy of the government.

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