Indonesia's peace starts at the top

Popular support for the new president and his VP, selected yesterday,

Megawati Sukarnoputri's consolation prize - the vice presidency of Indonesia - should assure this country a measure of peace and reconciliation as it emerges from a turbulent political transition.

In less than two years, Indonesians have jettisoned a dictator who ruled for three decades, conducted free and fair parliamentary elections, and held their first presidential election with more than one candidate. Despite the tumult and violence they have endured, Indonesians now have leaders with broad appeal, an increasingly assertive legislature, and far greater political freedoms than they have enjoyed since the 1950s.

All of this is not to say that democratization is complete - experts caution that there is still much work to be done. But Indonesia's new leadership is already drawing accolades from abroad, meaning that the government will likely be able to tap fresh flows of funds from foreign investors and the international community.

"It's a pretty impressive combination of talent," says one Western official here who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to newly elected President Abdurrahman Wahid, Mrs. Megawati, and two top legislative leaders. "These are all thoughtful people with strong political constituencies who are really interested in making things better than they have been."

Although she seemed less than entirely delighted after yesterday's vote in her favor in the People's Consultative Assembly, Megawati's new position should mollify supporters angered that a day earlier she lost the presidency to Mr. Wahid, a politically astute Muslim leader who emerged as a compromise figure.

Under Indonesia's indirect electoral system, the 700-seat Consultative Assembly elects the president and vice president. The country's 500-member parliament is part of the Assembly, a feature that is supposed to ensure that the popular will is reflected in the selection of Indonesia's two top leaders.

Her backers rioted in Jakarta and other cities on Wednesday and again in Bali yesterday, claiming that Megawati, as leader of the party that won a plurality of seats in June parliamentary elections, should be president. But they did not carry out threats to turn their disappointment into "revolution."

Her supporters also may realize that Megawati now serves as the understudy to a man who has had health problems in recent years. If Wahid were unable to complete his five-year term, Megawati would become president.

With Wahid and Megawati in the country's two top jobs, there is reason to believe that political unrest will subside, a prospect that encourages those interested in Indonesia's recovery. "If these two have the respect of the people and that endures, it certainly will help growth and everything we are trying to do," says Ben Fisher, deputy director of the World Bank office in Jakarta.

Indonesia's leaders now must repair a ruinous economy, dampen separatist spirit in some outlying regions, and build on steps toward democratic reform. And to satisfy reform-oriented constituencies they also must continue dismantling Indonesia's existing political structure, in which a powerful ruler maintained his position by giving the military a political role and dispensing economic rewards to favored people.

"Getting the military out is the only thing that will assure [a] trajectory of genuine change," says Daniel Lev, an Indonesia specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle. Wahid has cultivated ties with just about everyone in Indonesian politics, including influential generals, so it remains to be seen how effective he will be in trying to divorce the military from politics.

Megawati's "policy is to tame the military," says Muchtar Buchori, a newspaper columnist and one of the new vice president's political allies. "At the moment she cannot afford to alienate the military, but she also cannot allow the continuation of the present situation."

At least on a symbolic level, one aspect of the vice-presidential contest suggested that the military is backing away from the political klieg lights, if not returning to the barracks. Yesterday General Wiranto, the outgoing defense minister and the chief of the armed forces, withdrew from the vice-presidential race at the last minute. The gesture capped months of coy responses to questions about his political ambitions.

Indonesia has been ruled for the past 17 months by B.J. Habibie, who took over from former President Suharto after widespread protests and a withdrawal of military backing forced the longtime dictator from office in May 1998. Mr. Habibie claims credit for freeing the press and opening up the political system, but Professor Lev says these reforms were largely a matter of legally recognizing freedoms already taken by the people.

The real work of democracy-building remains, he says, such as the strengthening of civic and political institutions.

Under Suharto, adds Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an adviser to former President Habibie, "the legal system had been an instrument of power" rather than of justice. Although the judiciary has lately shown some signs of independence, these analysts agree that a lot has to change before Indonesians can trust in the rule of law.

In recent days, however, the legislature has shown unprecedented initiative, such as the passage of constitutional amendments that curb pres- idential power. "Those are real steps beyond an executive-dominated government," says the World Bank's Mr. Fisher.

Indonesia's international partners are enthusiastic about the reform-oriented stance of Wahid and Megawati, who have both cultivated positive relations with foreign governments and multilateral institutions. Both appear committed to fighting collusion and corruption - hallmarks of the Indonesian system - and promoting transparency.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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