Indonesian President Suharto has faced few open challenges during his three decades in power. But his system of enforced consensus, with all political parties and legislative functions tightly under control, may now be feeling the tremors of change.
That's the message from recent Jakarta street protests that broke out when police raided the headquarters of one of the "official" opposition parties, the Indonesian Democratic Party, whose leader was replaced by someone more to Suharto's liking.
Party members loyal to the displaced leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, had refused to vacate the headquarters. The police forced them out, but in so doing sparked a riot that drew in disaffected elements beyond Ms. Megawati's followers and exposed underlying tensions in the world's fourth-most-populous country.
A presidential election is scheduled for 1998. Suharto has not said whether he'll seek a seventh five-year term. But, clearly, he wasn't happy about even the potential of meaningful competition - as represented by Megawati. As the daughter of Indonesian independence leader Sukarno (who held power for 22 years) she has built-in political appeal. But she's no firebrand and eschews comparisons to other Asian democracy leaders such as Corazon Aquino of the Philippines.
Megawati had planned to pursue her grievances against the government through the courts. But initial attempts to argue her suit, which accuses the military and the government of illegally removing her as party leader, were rebuffed when the hearings were immediately postponed for three weeks, ostensibly because one of the judges had a toothache. Megawati's chances of winning the case, and reversing the government's actions, are slight.
On Aug. 5, Megawati was summoned by the police for questioning about unnamed persons who stand accused of defaming the president. She at first refused to honor the summons, pointing out that as a member of parliament she was immune, but later agreed to talk with the police. Again, she seems determined to work within the system.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people suspected of involvement in the protests have been rounded up, including a prominent independent labor leader, Muchtar Pakpathan. The tensions beneath the outbreak of protest won't be so easily corralled, however. They include disgust over the disproportionate wealth that has flowed to the governing elite, and specifically to the president's family, during the country's economic expansion.
Indonesia's middle class has grown significantly, but its opportunities for political expression are rigidly restricted. And the building of new homes to accommodate the newly prosperous has pushed many poor farmers off their land, another source of friction.
Indonesia is a huge, strategically important country in the throes of change. But it is shackled by a political system that may be incapable of dealing with change. Those around Suharto, who have profited greatly under his regime, may argue for even tighter control. What's needed, however, is a loosening of autocratic control so that Indonesia, like Taiwan and South Korea, can experience a democratic evolution to complement and reinforce its economic one.