AFTER decades of stifling dissent and debate, Indonesian authorities are dabbling with a new political openness. Nudged by the democratic resurgence in Eastern Europe, Indonesians have begun asking out loud the country's most compelling political question: Who will succeed President Suharto?
Calls have spread in recent months for Suharto, who came to power in 1967, to step down when his term ends in two years. Those signals have the cautious blessings of the powerful military, elements of which hope to forestall political turmoil with some limited democratic change, observers say.
On Aug. 17, the eve of Indonesia's 45th anniversary of independence, 58 former Cabinet ministers, generals, political and religious leaders urged reform. ``Twenty-five years of General Suharto is enough,'' says Sumitro, a retired Army chief. ``It is time to trust the new generation.''
The issue is touchy in this vast, contentious archipelago, and cuts to the heart of a political system dominated by two presidents in 45 years. Suharto, formerly armed forces chief, took power following an aborted coup in 1965 and subsequent Army crackdown on the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), in which an estimated 250,000 people were killed. The turmoil lead to the downfall of Sukarno, the charismatic independence leader who was the country's first president.
Trying to hang on
Western and Indonesian political observers doubt that Suharto, who says he wants a sixth term and has ruled out major political change, will step aside easily. The government banned reports of last week's pro-democracy petition in the local press.
[According to Reuters, the government said over the weekend it was ending press censorship unless national security was at risk, but local editors received the news with some skepticism. ``Reporters are no longer restricted. They can write any news as long as it does not violate the code of ethics of the Indonesian Journalists' Association and national interests,'' Coordinating Minister for Politics and Security Sudomo said.]
Earlier this month, Suharto bolstered support in the Army by shifting the high command. He promoted several trusted officers including Maj. Gen. Wismoyo Arismunandar, his brother-in-law.
Analysts say no strong alternative has emerged in a political system built upon a single powerful and paternalistic leader. Suharto has gained support with policies which, after the trauma of the 1960s, produced years of relative stability and an economic boom.
A sophisticated system of controls on the press and political activity has acted to check dissent. In this predominantly Muslim yet diverse country, the government has enforced a tenuous unity under pancasila, the state ideology which, among other things, stresses harmony and democracy by consensus. ``There are really no other strong voices ...,'' says a Western diplomat. ``Change will evolve gradually.''
Whoever is president, observers say, the armed forces retain the final say. The succession question is believed to have divided the military, which sees itself as the guiding hand behind any political change. Mentioned as candidates to replace Suharto are Major General Wismoyo and Try Sutrisno, the armed forces chief.
In recent months, influential officers have distanced themselves from Suharto and called for change. Gen. Edi Sudradjat, the Army chief, told an Indonesian newspaper that people wanted an end to ``the foot-stomping, father-knows-best leadership style.''
Harbingers of change
Although they still fear left-wing and religious extremism, military leaders have acknowledged the democratic resurgence worldwide and allowed more political latitude to avert sudden change, observers say.
``We don't want to see a situation like Manila. We don't want to face a Tiananmen Square,'' says Sumitro, the former Army chief. ``We don't want to see a political vacuum like in Eastern Europe.''
``This is a turning point,'' says a human rights activist. ``This is the dilemma of the military: How do you get rid of Suharto, preserve the economic boom, and open up civil rights without plunging into chaos?''
Still, political change is in the air, analysts say. The usually tame parliament is openly debating issues. The self-censored press is starting to discuss political controversies. The government has lifted a 1978 ban on university political activities.
In Jakarta, the capital, thousands of fans have attended recent pop music concerts that highlighted pro-democracy demands and criticized economic inequality. Satirical music, poetry, and theater are popular.
The new liveliness points to a growing political assertiveness among Indonesians, traditionally not known for challenging authority, social observers say.
``The middle-class Indonesian has a civil-service mentality. He doesn't want to take risks and has no initiative. This has retarded democratic development here,'' says Nugroho Kunjaraningrat, a noted anthropologist.
``It's only very recently that people have started to question, and that will be more conducive to democracy.''