Suharto's Exit: How, Not When

May 20 protests go ahead despite Indonesia leader's claim to start reforms and step down after an election.

Far more than the career of Asia's longest-serving ruler turns on the outcome of massive protests in Indonesia.

President Suharto is fighting demands voiced by everyone from cab drivers to ex-Cabinet ministers for his resignation. But when the end comes he will leave behind a nation of 200 million people uncertain how to govern themselves and an economy whose further collapse could trouble world markets.

In the meantime, more protests will test his resolve and the continued willingness of the Army to kill Indonesians in order to keep in power a man who has ruled for more than 32 years.

In televised remarks May 19, Mr. Suharto said he will resign, but not now, and that elections will be held to inaugurate a new political system - "as soon as possible." This double-edged response has generated some relief, since many Indonesians are happy to see him at least discuss his departure. But many are skeptical.

Wearing the red jacket of his university, an institution named for Indonesia's independence day (August 17), law student Apek Saiman stands under a bright sun as he surveys the future of this unsettled country.

All around him at Jakarta's National Assembly complex are the banners and bullhorns of popular revolution.

"We will keep fighting until we make him step down," says Mr. Saiman. Amien Rais, the most visible opposition leader, said large demonstrations would take place across the country May 20 - a day that could provide a turning point.

Saiman and other student leaders are largely unmoved by the president's promises of a yet-to-be-named "reform Cabinet" and his acknowledgment that many of his people want him out. Some who know him well are saddened but unsurprised. "He is ruthless and he would like to keep his power at all costs and that makes me frustrated," says one former Cabinet minister who would not be named.

'Javanese shadow play'

Suharto is promising the reform of Indonesian politics in exchange for the opportunity to carry out the changes himself. The problem is that many people here think he is really buying time in order to stay in power. "It's a typical Javanese shadow play - saying nice things and doing the opposite," the ex-minister adds.

Other analysts take at least some of what he says at face value. Mari Pangestu, an economist at Jakarta's private Center for Strategic and International Studies, says Suharto is sincere in stating he wants to maintain stability and peace above all. "No one can say that if he stepped down today there would be no bloodshed in a transition," she adds.

Indonesia's Dan Quayle

According to prominent academics who met with Suharto May 19, the president told them he was ready to leave office, but doubtful that his critics would be content with Vice President B.J. Habibie, who would replace him in accordance with the Constitution.

The subtlety here is that Mr. Habibie is seen as something of a Dan Quayle - an alternative so unpalatable that sticking with the guy in the top job automatically improves by comparison. If turmoil arose over Habibie, Suharto seems to be arguing, greater uncertainty and unrest could follow.

But of course Indonesia's president may have chosen Habibie as vice president in March in anticipation of this very day. That is the sort of suspicion, widely held here, that causes people to see Suharto as a puppet master, manipulating events from behind a screen of smiles and fatherly concern.

It is no accident that Indonesia still lacks a strong candidate to replace Suharto - the political system he controls has prevented anyone else from gaining such popularity.

To take just one example of the weakness of this country's nominally democratic institutions, 400 of the 500 seats in the National Assembly are directly controlled by the president, and he has veto power over whoever occupies the remaining 100.

The Constitution, which Suharto now says is so important to obey, is similarly constructed to serve his interests rather than the people's.

In spite of recent intimations that the president was preparing to resign, including political betrayals by those once close to him, he now says he is resolved to stay on because it is his responsibility to guide reform in accordance with the Constitution.

Perhaps the most important reason he has the confidence to ignore the dissent around him is that he seems to have orchestrated solid support from the military, a necessary factor in a country whose cities are disrupted by protest.

Military loyalty

The military is loyal partly because Suharto himself is a retired general. The other reason is that it has divisions of its own - there are personality conflicts between top generals, some of whom may aspire to leading the country themselves.

Staying with Suharto, says one analyst who spoke on condition on anonymity, seems to the generals to be the wisest course for now.

But these officers and the men they command are the ones who must keep the peace and it may be that some or all of them will turn on Suharto rather than kill their compatriots.

Although many students, the forefront of the movement against the president, say they would reject a new general at the top, many members of Indonesia's elite say they are hoping the military will take charge.

The economy is in collapse and getting worse. Economists estimate negative growth this year of anywhere between 5 percent and 15 percent. Unrest has destroyed shops, idled factories, and scared off expatriate managers.

With systems of distribution failing and the value of the currency falling, prices continue to rise. By some estimates, Suharto's program to rewrite political laws and hold new elections will take six months to a year. "I don't think the economy will survive," says Ms. Pangestu.

All of which contributes to the growing possibility that Indonesia's companies and even its government will default on their loans to banks abroad, which would not help Japan to recover and the US and European economies to insulate themselves from Asia's economic troubles.

Assembly lacks options

Meanwhile, at Indonesia's National Assembly, which students are making a focus of their protests, organizers say that the stakes have become too high for them to accept anything less than the withdrawal of the man who has been president for far longer than most of them have lived - 32 years.

For one thing, security forces killed at least four students on May 12.

Outrage over their deaths, combined with economic frustration and hooliganism, produced rioting in several cities in recent days that has killed more than 500 people.

"We are beyond the point of no return," says Rival, a University of Indonesia law student.

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