Teflon general for president?

General Wiranto failed to prevent violent outbreaks across the country.

In many other countries, General Wiranto would have been fired several times over in the past year. But in Indonesia, he may be in for the ultimate promotion.

Wiranto, defense minister and commander of Indonesia's armed forces, failed to contain massive riots in the capital, deadly clashes on the major islands, and a wave of crime that swept the archipelago after Asia's economic crisis hobbled the country in 1997. He has let all but a handful of soldiers walk free, even as his troops killed dozens of unarmed protesters, instigated riots, and armed gangs that terrorize civilians in the province of East Timor.

And yet Wiranto's name is mentioned time and time again as Indonesians debate who should become their new president later this year. (Like many Indonesians, he uses only one name.) Early results from Monday's parliamentary election indicate that none of the parties are likely to win a majority; thus none will be in a position to push their own candidate without a coalition. A coalition may have to look for someone who can stand above the parties, such as the sultan of Yogyakarta, a noted Muslim scholar, or Wiranto.

Several small parties have already named the general as their choice for president, while three of the largest parties are considering him for the vice presidency, at least. Wiranto has not ruled out his own nomination.

Some admire Wiranto's handsome looks and the calm authority that comes with the job of commanding 500,000 soldiers and police. Presidential aides say that President B.J. Habibie was charmed by Wiranto's singing talent, while others were impressed by his skill at playing bridge.

Not a power grabber

Wiranto won some praise last year for resisting the temptation to seize power when former President Suharto resigned, instead supporting Mr. Habibie's succession. He has initiated reforms in the military and largely stayed above the fray of election politics. He has presided over the reduction of the military's guaranteed seats in parliament, from 75 to 38, and appears to have no objection to the seats being phased out altogether. He told officers who hold government posts to choose between the military or civil service. This overlap was dubbed "dual function" under Mr. Suharto's rule, and now Wiranto has made it clear he wants the armed forces to focus on its traditional function only.

But Wiranto's main appeal has little to do with himself. One reason he is so popular is that the very unrest he has failed to prevent has fed nostalgia for the law and order of authoritarian rule.

"We still need to be ruled by an iron hand," says one Indonesian businesswoman. "This country is not ready for democracy. [Wiranto] seems to be pretty popular with the strongest parties."

However, for many Indonesians who have put high hopes on the first democratic elections in 44 years, Wiranto is unpalatable. "The idea of having a general as head of state is really frightening," says Mochtar Buchori, deputy chairman of the Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle (PDI-P), an early front-runner that is headed by presidential hopeful Megawati Sukarnoputri. Says Lt. Gen. Hari Sabarno, chairman of the military's special faction in parliament, "He is military, and the military is not so popular anymore. The other psychological factor is that he used to be an adjutant of Suharto."

The name of Wiranto is missing in even recent books on Indonesia's military or the local Who's Who. He has little battle experience but shot up the ranks after he served as adjutant to Suharto from 1989 to 1993.

Views are unknown

Wiranto has given few clues about his character or his views. Retired Gen. Bambang Triantoro, himself Javanese, says that Wiranto personifies the inscrutability the Javanese are famous for. "Wiranto is very closed. It is very difficult to read his mind."

Wiranto has publicly supported many of the reforms initiated by Habibie, though at times he has tried to slow them down. People who know him say he is content for the military to become more professional and less distracted by politics or business, but keen to avoid antagonizing his generals by pulling back too quickly.

Yesterday, Wiranto called for the public's patience as the slowness of the vote count raised suspicions of fraud. He advised the political parties waiting for results against "any unnecessary actions which would set back the development [of democracy]."

In recent months Wiranto has been more vocal about his political views. He has come down sharply against separatists in the provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya, persuading Habibie to abandon efforts at mollifying the regions in starting dialogues and delegating powers there. Few analysts think a hard-line approach will do anything but further antagonize the Acehnese and other regional minorities.

Wiranto's own role in last year's riots and a series of localized clashes, where soldiers were seen to be taking part, remains murky. Most analysts have tended to blame dissidents in the Army's top ranks, doing the bidding of Suharto or a government faction that is presumed to want more Islamic influence over the state. But that excuse gradually lost ground as riots continued, even as Wiranto weeded out his rivals and appointed friends.

The military's role in restive East Timor, in particular, has fed doubts about Wiranto's commitment to democracy and civilian rule. Neighboring Australia, as well as the United Nations and other organizations, have accused the military of supporting armed militia that oppose a scheduled Aug. 8 plebiscite on independence for the territory. Mr. Triantoro, the retired general, says it is established military doctrine, dating back to rebellions of the 1950s, to arm civilians against separatist guerrillas. And Wiranto's supporters argue that East Timor is an exception, assuming that he cannot ride roughshod over the military's resentment at giving up their one battleground of the past 25 years.

Wiranto's worst liability, in the eyes of many, is his continued loyalty to Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for 32 years.

"Wiranto was not just his adjutant," says Triantoro. "He is at home in the family of Suharto, he sees Suharto as the leader of his nation, and he was made commander by Suharto. And there is no one who could take over that charisma, that image. As a Javanese, he can't resist that. He can never say no to Suharto."

Salim Said, a military analyst, says Wiranto is learning to say no. "Wiranto is in the process of becoming himself. Away from Suharto. Westerners are wrong to think that kind of transformation happens overnight."

Mr. Said, Triantoro, and the military's Mr. Sabarno believe Wiranto would not accept the presidency now, for it would again make the military responsible for managing the country at a time when the armed forces are already unpopular and nobody has ready recipes for solving the economic crisis.

"Wiranto is sensible enough to understand that it's better for the military not to come up as No. 1 now," Said adds. "He is still young. He has a future."

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