Indonesia's President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie likes to crack jokes. Even when discussing something serious, his eyes twinkle and his hands wave in the air in a way that makes a visitor wonder just how to take what he's saying.
"We're going to change," he offers in an interview. "Nice, eh?"
But Mr. Habibie is not kidding. In the seven weeks since he replaced former President Suharto, who ruled Indonesia's 200 million people for 32 years, Habibie has managed to open the door for a plethora of political parties and raucous debates in the news media. He has freed some political prisoners and allowed workers to form unions. And he has set a timetable for democratic elections for a legislature that will in turn elect a new president.
This wave of reforms has garnered Habibie much more support - or at least acceptance - than most Indonesians and foreign observers had expected of a man they had dismissed as a nutty professor and a Suharto crony who jockeyed for business favors for his family.
Cashing in on his improved image, Habibie has abandoned a pledge to be a transitional leader only and says he may run for a second term. On Sunday, Golkar, the ruling party set up by Mr. Suharto, elected Habibie's favored candidate as its chairman. A rival, said to plan Habibie's impeachment, was soundly defeated. That means Habibie is safe from parliamentary censure, he has military leaders behind him, and opposition groups have either taken to him or failed to rally against him.
"We support Habibie as long as he makes progress with legal reforms," says Irwan Badillah, chairman of a Muslim student organization.
Mr. Badillah admits that Habibie is tolerated because the student protesters who helped bring down Suharto lost momentum once their main goal was achieved: "After the old regime collapsed, the students splintered.... They are divided over Habibie. They are Muslim and Christians again. We have differing priorities now."
Habibie's biggest fans have been the International Monetary Fund, due to release $1 billion in credits for Indonesia tomorrow, and the World Bank, which released $1 billion this month. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave a more cautious nod of approval, but Japan, Germany, and other countries have sung his praises.
Military gives crucial support
Habibie also won vital, if guarded, support from the country's military. "The most ready government to restore our economy is the Habibie government," says Lt. Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, chief of socio-political affairs in the military. "If someone else were president, there is no guarantee he will have support from all the people either. Our economy cannot wait."
Even those who publicly oppose him admit quietly they can live with Habibie. "Let's give him a chance," says Subagio Anam, a businessman turned politician. "It is risky to keep changing governments."
To some extent, Habibie's idiosyncratic manner, complete disregard of protocol, and fondness for chatting away for hours have come as a breath of fresh air after the aloof rule of Suharto. He prides himself on visiting parliament rather than ordering its speaker to his palace, as was his predecessor's habit.
"One day after [visiting parliament], I got a lot of calls from personalities that told me I am insulting the presidential institution," Habibie says, and it is clear he is being ironic. "Because I am the president of Indonesia, I should not come to parliament.... And I told them, look, that's the people's power. I am one of the people. So, I am not a king. I may be a servant," he added, chuckling. "I have to serve the people."
Language like this pleases even Mr. Subagio, a strong supporter and adviser to opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has refused to accept Habibie as president. Subagio compliments Habibie by comparing him to former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
"There is a similarity," Subagio says. "He has made dramatic changes in the political life. But he may meet the same fate as Gorbachev," Subagio adds.
"Gorbachev failed with perestroika," says Umar Juoro, an economist close to Habibie's camp, in reference to reforms launched by Mr. Gorbachev in 1985. "In the Soviet Union, political reforms failed because people could not get food."
That may hold true for Indonesia, too. Other than the collapse of the Soviet Union, no economic downturn since World War II comes close to Indonesia's. Gross domestic product has declined by 12.2 percent so far this year, plunging 40 percent of the people into poverty. Habibie has said little other than suggesting that Indonesians follow his example, as a devout Muslim, of fasting on Mondays and Thursdays to save on the country's rice consumption.
Habibie's Cabinet is divided between populists and technocrats, and neither is used to compromising because Suharto made all the decisions. The currency, the rupiah, has continued to lose value despite a rush of pledges of financial support for the government.
Habibie also has not gained much acceptance from the country's Chinese, who control more than two-thirds of the economy. Chinese businesspeople have hunkered down or fled the country after rioters destroyed many of their shops. In a move that might help relations with this ethnic minority, Habibie said he had ordered the creation of a group to investigate those who kidnapped dozens of activists, shot four student protesters, and organized the riots and rapes in May. The committee poses a challenge to the powerful military, whose own inquiry into the events has been slow and tarnished by the belief that soldiers were among the culprits.
New status for East Timor unclear
Habibie had been loath to pressure the military until he was assured of its backing, but he also needs to gain the confidence of the ethnic Chinese. Those who are back in business complain of continued extortion by soldiers sent in to protect them against new violence. Habibie says the new committee would include members of the Chinese community.
His own Cabinet has four ministers considered to be anti-Chinese. So the mixed messages continue. Habibie had offered limited autonomy to East Timor, which was annexed by Indonesia in 1976, but on Saturday he said this "special status" would be "just the same" as the rather symbolic powers enjoyed by the capital and two other regions. Indonesia's justice minister, Muladi, said that he would release 90 political prisoners. But Habibie said Xanana Gusmao, the East Timorese rebel leader, would not be among them.
With political changes in place, the president is aware of a need to concentrate on economic needs too. "The majority of people, they don't care [who is president]. They care only for their rice bowl," he says.
But Habibie insists he made the right decision to focus on political reforms first. "I made a race car with this political vehicle and pulled it and pushed it," he says, "That all happened within 30 days. Unfortunately, I cannot do more."