Indonesia's Turning Point

Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous nation, its largest Muslim nation, and, until recently, a linchpin of East Asia's vibrant economy. Now it's perched too close to the edge of financial collapse and civil unrest for comfort.

The litany of reasons why Indonesia and some fellow onetime "tigers" have slipped into crisis is now familiar: poor financial regulation, cronyism, loans that far outstrip ability to pay. When underlying weaknesses surfaced, currencies plunged - Indonesia's further than most.

This is disturbing because of the strategic importance of the country, and because of the sheer human tragedy that could result if its nearly 210 million citizens are subjected to an economic meltdown. But that outcome can be avoided.

Officials from the International Monetary Fund and from the United States are visiting Jakarta this week to encourage Indonesia's government to adhere to the austerity guidelines required in the IMF's $43 billion economic rescue plan. President Suharto now seems inclined to abide by the IMF requirements, after earlier sowing doubt by announcing a national budget that appeared utterly at odds with financial reality. The government has agreed to shelve some costly infrastructure projects - including some backed by Suharto family members. A top economic adviser to Suharto has vowed the country will maintain debt payments.

If these steps are continued, the panic sown by uncertainty will ebb, creating an environment more conducive to solving Indonesia's other great problem: making the transition from Suharto, who has exercised virtual one-man authority for 32 years. A national assembly will be choosing the next president in March, and it has been assumed Suharto will seek, and get, a seventh term. The assembly and every other institution of government is firmly in his grasp. But the president is elderly, and reportedly in poor health. He has designated no successor, and Indonesia has no experience with peaceful transfers of power.

In these circumstances, with the economic crisis as backdrop, the unheard-of has happened: calls for Suharto to step down. The most public of such calls came from Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the country's independence leader, Sukarno, and currently its most visible opposition figure. But calls have also reportedly emanated from a source more worrisome to Suharto, the military. Average citizens, too, are debating the political future.

With some belt-tightening and determined reforms this country - rich in oil, in export industries, and in people - can rebound economically. But its long-term prosperity requires political reform as well. Suharto's system of strong-man rule, weak popular representation, and ample privilege for family and colleagues has overseen considerable economic progress in Indonesia. But it has no future.

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