Tense moment in Indonesia's power struggle

Tomorrow an electoral college will choose Indonesia's next president

Wan Bebas Iriansyah came to the demonstration in jeans and his tie-dyed Mt. Bromo T-shirt, which depicts the most picturesque of Indonesia's many volcanoes.

It was an evocative choice. Lots about Indonesia's political scene these days suggests hot steam and ash forcing its way out of a trembling crater.

With an electoral college set to choose Indonesia's next president tomorrow, this country could make a major advance toward democracy. But the outcome also might bring more of the political upheaval endured here since early last year.

On Sunday Mr. Iriansyah joined hundreds milling around a traffic circle under a hot sun. About 1,000 gathered yesterday. If their candidate does not become president, their banners vow, there will be "revolution."

"There are only two candidates," says Iriansyah, "reformation and the status quo." Reformasi was the rallying cry of the protests that last year led to the resignation of President Suharto.

Now Iriansyah and many others worry that their push for a thorough reform of Indonesia's political system is in jeopardy, and they and student demonstrators have upped the stakes and have begun warning of revolution.

More turmoil is just about the last thing Indonesia needs. East Asia's economic crisis still grips this country more severely than anywhere else, thanks in large part to political uncertainty. And East Timor's August vote for independence may inspire other parts of this nation of islands to secede.

Countering recession and national disintegration are the top items on most politicians' agendas here. But this week's race for president is less about policy and more about personality and making a break with the past.

Megawati Sukarnoputri

Iriansyah's candidate is Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia's founding president and a longtime critic of the Suharto regime. Her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle won parliamentary elections in June, giving her supporters reason to believe that she deserves the presidency. But they may be disappointed.

Indonesia chooses its president in a 700-seat People's Consultative Assembly, which includes the 500-member parliament and sets broad policy outlines. Despite her party's election victory, Ms. Megawati controls just 153 seats in the MPR, as the Assembly is known.

Megawati is no Western-trained technocrat, but she does stand as a representative of reform and of the millions of Indonesians who continue to suffer the effects of the economic crisis.

The current president

President B.J. Habibie, on the other hand, is a German-trained engineer who has succeeded only partially in distancing himself from his political and personal mentor, Mr. Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for 32 years. Mr. Habibie has made some impressive reforms - throwing open a once-closed political system and freeing and long-muzzled news media.

But at the same time, the government has backed away from investigating the former president for corruption, along with the many family members and personal friends who profited during his rule.

Habibie's supporters insist he is still the only candidate with the international savvy to lead Indonesia, but their man appears to be in trouble. Many Indonesians blame him for the country's embarrassing loss of East Timor and his party is constantly accused of "money politics" - bribing its way to victory in the MPR - a charge party leaders deny.

And yesterday the man Habibie had tipped as his vice president, defense minister and armed forces commander Gen. Wiranto said he had "chosen not to enter in the rivalry of the presidential or vice presidential candidacy."

Even at this late hour, Habibie's party may dump him as its candidate in favor of a less-controversial choice.

But Habibie's peril is not necessarily good news for Megawati and her supporters in the streets of Jakarta and the country's other cities. In the end the presidency may go to Abdurrahman Wahid, the leader of a Muslim social-service organization who was once allied with Megawati but now says she would be better off being his "opposition."

Because Mr. Wahid is nearly blind and has a reputation for slipperiness, another middle-ground candidate is emerging: a US-educated legal scholar named Nurcholish Madjid. Like Wahid, Mr. Madjid has strong support from Indonesia's Muslim parties.

Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country, although the Islam practiced here is a low-key, secularized variety. And the politically powerful military, along with former presidents Sukarno and Suharto, has struggled to ensure that Muslims do not unify into a political monolith or push too hard for a more Islamic state.

Still, the influence of the Islam-oriented political parties is growing, especially in the political free-for-all of modern Indonesia. Some more conservative leaders have said that Megawati should not be president since qualified men are available.

But her list of challenges is long. Megawati and her advisers have also seemed incapable, in the early days of the MPR, of the political deal-making needed to win her presidency. And she suffers from a lack of respect from members of Indonesia's intellectual class, who say her support derives from her father's reputation as the nation's founder and not her own abilities.

"The main intention of Habibie staying in power is to be the shield for Suharto and his regime. The rest is just ceremonies," says Mochtar Pabottingi, a political scientist at the state-funded National Institute of Sciences in Jakarta. But Megawati is "not quite an alternative because ... if she's intellectually lacking and has no political vision that can also damage the country."

He suggests that MPR members may seek refuge in Madjid to escape the first two choices. Still, he adds, "If MPR reelects Habibie that will be a tragedy for the country. Megawati we can mend along the way."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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