In most functioning democracies, civilians control the military and the generals stay out of politics.
But one of Indonesia's most pressing political questions concerns its top general: What does Wiranto want?
When visitors put this question to Gen. Wiranto, "he just smiles," says an Indonesian military officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. (Like many Indonesians, Wiranto uses just one name.)
Wiranto's intentions are especially important now, because the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), which serves as an electoral college that will choose the next president on Oct. 20, is meeting here in the capital. The outcome will in large part determine whether this vast archipelago nation, home to more than 210 million people, will embrace greater freedom or remain subject to the political manipulations of its military.
"Indonesians have to understand that what is in front of us is a golden opportunity," says Hadi Soesastro, who studies political economy at the privately run Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. "But if we can't get our act together to make it through this transition, I think the backlash is going to be quite serious. You will see the military trying to come back ... and they can only govern using very repressive policies and measures."
Just last year it seemed that Indonesians were about to free themselves from decades of military-backed rule and fashion the world's third-largest democracy. Amid massive student pro-tests against then-President Suharto, the military withdrew its support for the man they had served for 32 years, forcing his resignation in May 1998.
This June, voters selected a 500-member parliament in the country's first free elections in 43 years. The Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, led by longtime critic of the Suharto regime Megawati Sukarnoputri, won that contest but fell short of a majority sufficient to win her the presidency.
The MPR comprises the parliament plus an additional 200 appointees; their most important task is electing Indonesia's next president. Besides supporters of Ms. Megawati, the MPR also includes many representatives of Golkar, the party of Suharto and his protg, President B.J. Habibie. Students and other reformers rail against Golkar, but the party placed second in the elections.
It also has the most developed political machine - one that may be willing to operate in less than democratic ways. Mr. Habibie recently has had to deny charges that $70 million was siphoned off from a bank restructuring fund to buy votes for him in the MPR.
There are also several Islamic parties, a few of which are rallying around Abdurrahman Wahid, leader of a huge Islamic social-service organization. Political analysts doubt that Mr. Wahid will capture the top job, but one of his allies, a reformist political scientist named Amien Rais, was this week elected to chair the Consultative Assembly. Islamic politicians may pose problems for Megawati, since some of them say that the president should not be a woman.
And then there is the military. Under Indonesia's "dual function" policy, which guarantees the generals a role in politics as well as security, the military is entitled to 38 of the seats in parliament.
The number is down from the 100 it controlled until a few years ago. But those seats and others filled by soldiers-turned-politicians give the military a king- or queen-making role. The military is in a position to subvert a president it does not support - or provide stability and security for one it does.
In the wake of the East Timor crisis, some experts here detect a hardening of military attitudes. Habibie's decision to offer a referendum to the independence-minded East Timorese took the military by surprise. Military leaders tried to use intimidation to dissuade voters in the territory from choosing to break away from Indonesia.
The tactic failed. Voters overwhelmingly favored independence, prompting militia groups created by the military to strike back in what seems like a vengeful campaign of destabilization. An unknown number were killed and perhaps half the population was displaced. The UN, through an international force led by Australia, is trying to restore order and clear the way for independence.
Many military officers see the loss of the territory, where Indonesia sought to subdue the population and fought pro-independence guerrillas for nearly a quarter century, as a bitter humiliation.
"The East Timor thing seems to have rung the death knell for military reform," says a Western expert here who declined to be identified further. Recent positive developments, such as the military's neutrality in the June balloting and gradual withdrawal from positions in civilian government, haven't been followed by additional improvements.
Military analysts say they are uncertain about Wiranto's true motivations. "For a while we thought Wiranto was a reformer and he was ... up to a point," the Western expert adds. An apparently sincere man who looks his interlocutors in the eye, Wiranto routinely promises support for democratic reforms.
But recent street demonstrations show that many Indonesians, especially the student activists who have been agitating for more democracy for nearly two years, are increasingly skeptical.
Hardly anyone here expects an outright coup. But there is worry about creeping militarization - the generals using their influence in public and behind the scenes to solidify or expand their political role. Wiranto and other generals, as is their right under the current system, openly engage in politics. Wiranto is considered a leading vice-presidential candidate, possibly alongside Habibie or even Megawati. As the daughter of the founding president, she has impeccable nationalist credentials.
Given the military's role as a swing vote in the MPR, it is hard to see how the next president would be able to rein in the generals, especially if Wiranto were to become vice president. And then there are the students, who say they will not stop their agitation for a truly democratic country.
"I would expect there to be massive student demonstrations," the Western expert concludes, "if anyone other than [Megawati] becomes president."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society