Suharto skirts a dilemma about Indonesia's virtual one-party rule

President Suharto of Indonesia seems to have finally reached a decision on what must have been one of his most difficult dilemmas since coming to power 16 years ago.

After a lengthy meeting a few days ago, a Cabinet secretary announced that the President had decided not to bow to popular requests, and become the head and patron of all groups represented in Indonesia's parliament. Instead, he has decided to stay with the political group that serves as his power base, Golkar - composed mainly of the armed forces and civil servants. This is the group that through successive elections has legitimized his position in this country of 150 million.

Suharto's dilemma, while it might be envied by other rulers, has been a cause of great concern. That the problem should ever have arisen shows the singular nature of Indonesian politics.

In Indonesia, there are no political parties, as such, only loose alliances of ''functional groups.'' Golkar is one of these groups, revived by President Suharto to become his political vehicle for the 1971 elections. In that election and since, it has won convincing margins, including 64 percent of the popular vote in the 1982 elections.

In the early 1970s, the government forced other political parties to merge into two organizations - one for the Islamic groups (the Development Unity Party , or PPP) and one for secular groups (the Indonesian Democratic Party, or PDI). Composed of varying factions, often with little in common, the two groups were neutralized in the face of Golkar's strength and unity. But PPP has nonetheless shown itself as a force to be reckoned with: in 1982, it gained 27.9 percent of the vote.

When the PPP and PDI started making public statements about the President, saying he should belong to all groups and not just one in particular, Golkar was quick to react. The Golkar speaker of parliament said ''they are trying to take 'Pak' (father) Suharto away from us.'' He added that such a move would only corner the President.

If the President chose to rise above his political affiliations, what then? Would civil service workers and members of the military, who are the pillars of Golkar, feel free to join the PPP or PDI, and consequently diminish Golkar's strength?

If President Suharto had decided differently, it would be seen as a return to the old, much criticized days of Sukarno when the President was an omnipresent figure, who saw himself above politics, unifying the country.

But Suharto seems to have chosen to stay as patron of one group, Golkar. The questions now are: will the other parties accept this and will the people be persuaded that Suharto is in fact their ''pak'' and not just head of the most influential and powerful group in the country.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.