Indonesia's president, B.J. Habibie, appears in a hurry to join the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev as one of the great - and unlikely - reformers of his time.
Yesterday Indonesia's parliament adopted election laws, drafted by Mr. Habibie's staff, that should enable his 200 million people to vote in the first democratic elections in 40 years. Just a day earlier, the mercurial president said that he might ask the new parliament to consider granting independence to East Timor, half of a small island occupied by Indonesian troops in 1975.
These bold moves - reminiscent of Mr. Gorbachev's decision to introduce democracy to the former Soviet Union and let Central and Eastern Europe break away - follow Habibie's release of political prisoners, abolition of press censorship, and a host of other political reforms in his first eight months in office.
Like Gorbachev and F.W. de Klerk, the former South African president who dismantled apartheid, Habibie emerged from the old regime and was widely distrusted when he first took office and talked reform in May 1998, following the sudden fall of President Suharto. Like his fellow reformers, Habibie risks going too fast - and going down with the regime he is dismantling. But some believe his willingness to reform may create enough goodwill to get him reelected president by parliament.
Responding on East Timor
His policy shift on East Timor, believed to be his own initiative, was one of the most drastic moves Habibie has made so far. Occupation of the territory, and killing of as many as a third of its 1 million people, had long made Indonesia a pariah in the international community. The UN never recognized annexation and is brokering talks between Indonesia and Portugal, East Timor's former colonial power.
Last year Habibie surprised by offering autonomy to East Timor but rejected calls for independence or a referendum among the Timorese on the issue. Now aides say he still favors autonomy but was willing to let go of the territory all along.
"Why do we have to hang on to East Timor if it is hurting us so much and the Timorese feel so unhappy about it?" Dewi Fortuna Anwar, Habibie's foreign relations adviser, told the Monitor yesterday. "What we want is to preserve the unity of Indo-nesia.... I don't believe East Timor would be like a domino that would lead to the break- up of Indonesia."
Few of the political parties that would sit in parliament after the June election ever supported independence for East Timor, although their stance has shifted recently along with Habibie's position. A military spokesman called Habibie's policy change "wise and positive," easing fears that the Army would rally against him over the issue.
"But we are worried about civil war on the island," the spokesman added. "Who will maintain order when we have left?"
Some diplomats agreed, predicting the offer would actually exacerbate tensions on the island. Pro-Indonesian groups have clashed with pro-independence activists in recent days, killing at least three and sending thousands to flee villages.
"The military don't want to be seen to be involved but they have armed their proxies," one diplomat says. "I'm not sure what the military's game is."
Timorese pro-independence leaders were dismissive of Habibie's offer. Jose Alves, a member of an umbrella group of pro-independence groups in East Timor, said most Timorese favored a gradual move to independence, with a five-year transition government shared by Indonesia, Portugal, and Timorese leaders. "Then we can have a referendum," he says.
But Ms. Anwar said the choice was between autonomy, "as a final solution" or cancellation of the annexation, a move that would transfer authority back to Portugal. "Then it's up to them, "she says. "We don't want to be hanging on the stick of Portugal and the United Nations for another five or 10 years. Indonesia is always wrong, we never get credit for doing something right."
Going with the flow
Like Gorbachev, Habibie excels not so much in initiating reforms but in letting them happen. When he took office amid violent riots calling for his predecessor's resignation, he presumed he would complete Suharto's term in 2003. But continued student protests and warning from opposition parties persuaded him to agree to early elections.
He then allowed reform-minded aides to draft election laws that would have introduced a district voting system, not unlike that in the US, to replace a proportional election in which only three parties, all vetted by Suharto, were allowed to take part. Parliament yesterday opted for a mix of the two because members feared they weren't ready to stand as single candidates in 324 districts, spread over hundreds of islands.
"The government proposal was actually more democratic," Anwar says. "But it was probably too idealistic.... The only party that happens to be ready for it happens to be Golkar [the dominant government party], which of course made the idea very unpopular."
In the new system, parties will get seats in parliament according to the number of votes they get. But to run in a district they will have to field local candidates. Candidates with the most votes get priority in the allotment of seats.
The 500 members of parliament, together with 135 delegates elected by regional senates and 65 representatives of social groups appointed by parliament, are scheduled to elect a new president in October or early November.
Umar Juoro, another Habibie adviser, believes no one party will dominate, forcing new legislators to pick a compromise president. That may well be Habibie. "They are not anti-Habibie," Mr. Juoro says. "The person who can get support from the most parties will become president."
That helps explain why Habibie agreed to early elections and appears committed to a democratic vote. "Habibie's survival depends very much on how the elections are conducted," says Emil Salim, former government minister. "If they are not fair, he is finished. I think he knows that."
Mulyana Kusumah, leader of an election watchdog, said the new laws still favor Golkar. Smaller parties will have to spread themselves thin to avoid losing small constituencies in various districts. But he and many others say they could live with the compromise, which came just in time to meet a deadline the government had set.
Progress, however flawed
"Whatever its shortcomings, it is a step forward," says Subagio Anam, a senior member of Megawati Sukarnoputri's opposition Democratic Party. "If there were no elections there would be civil war."
Civil war, or at least social upheaval, remains a possibility. More than 100 parties want to run in elections on widely different political and religious agendas. Even if, as expected, only 10 to 15 meet the requirements for registration, they will include competing Muslim parties, the widely resented Golkar party, and Ms. Megawati's nationalist party. Indonesia has been rattled by riots between Christians and Muslims in recent weeks, and election campaigns tended to be violent even when only three parties were allowed to take part.
Reducing military's role
Muslim leaders such as Abdurrahman Wahid have blamed Suharto followers for organizing riots. He met the former president earlier this week, urging him to rein in his men and allow peaceful elections.
The military has been accused of provoking unrest as well, either out of loyalty to Suharto or out of sympathy with Islamic generals who want to undermine chief commander General Wiranto, a moderate on good terms with both opposition leaders and Habibie. Just as worrying, their foot soldiers have proven too demoralized to stop looting and street brawls.
Parliament reduced the number of guaranteed military seats in the assembly from 75 to 38, reflecting the steady loss of influence of the generals who backed Suharto's 32-year reign.
Anwar acknowledged the risk that Habibie may unleash more than he intended with his reforms, much as Gorbachev thought he was saving communism and the Soviet Union. "We hope we find the balance," she says. "We just hope there is greater political maturity here than in the Soviet Union. Habibie is not too much out of step with what society is thinking.
"In terms of reform-mindedness, yes, to that extent Habibie can be like a Gorbachev, somebody who leads his country to democracy," adds Anwar. "But Indonesia does not take kindly to being compared to the Soviet Union. Gorbachev broke up his country. I don't think Habibie wants to break up the country."