April 03, 2020
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His President's Choice

Suharto quits, but democracy doesn't quite follow in his wake as maverick-crony Habibie takes over

His President's Choice

THE student demonstrators may have forced President Suharto out of office after a 32-year reign, but that pressure group didn't have much of a say in how the denouement unfolded: finally, the wily 76-year-old veteran orchestrated his departure on his own terms. He left the presidential residence at Cendana on May 21 but not before installing loyalist and controversial vice-president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, 61, in his place. That Suharto was pulling the strings was amply evident when Gen. Wiranto, defence minister and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, also swiftly pledged his loyalty to Habibie.

The end result has not pleased everyone. The students think the German-trained engineer, Habibie, is too closely aligned to Suharto. After all, Habibie owes his meteoric rise to Suharto's patronage. The students have demanded a special session of Parliament to appoint a new "clean" leader. Habibie in his first speech to the nation didn't indicate whether parliamentary elections will be called before his term expires in 2003. When he named his cabinet, he sought to portray an independent-mindedness, dropping Suharto's daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana, who held the social affairs portfolio, and golfing buddy Mohammad Hasan—ostensibly in a bid to "develop a government free of inefficiency caused by corruption and nepotism".

Habibie has to please many other players as well. The IMF, the US—key power-brokers in cash-starved Indonesia—and Japan have reservations about Habibie, often ridiculed for his grandiose industrial ambitions and wild economic theories. Example: he set up an aerospace factory to turn Indonesia into an aeroplane-manufacturer, in the process using up much of the country's meagre finances.

The people, who view his presidency as a transition, are more worried about the impact Habibie—who hails from Sulawesi island—will have on Javanese-dominated Indonesian polity. Gen. Wiranto's support will ease that somewhat but one diplomat says "the Habibie succession only gives the Suharto forces a breather".

In the succession drama,Suharto played his own game. When the Indonesian Speaker asked Suharto to quit, the president countered by saying that he wanted a fresh session where a new president would be elected—and that he would not be a candidate. But Suharto didn't give a chance to any of the probables—Suharto baiter and Opposition leader Amien Rais, who has been at the forefront of the democratic movement; Gen. Wiranto, who played the populist card by apologising to the students after his forces gunned down six protesters; Sukarno's daughter Megawati Sukarnoputri; Lt. Gen Prabowo Subianto, Suharto's son-in-law. He also ruled out fresh elections, instead anointing Habibie as president. "The armed forces had to back him since an open election could have thrown up a candidate unacceptable to them," says one analyst.

The swift succession put the demonstrators in a limbo. The armed forces closed in around the new president, though the younger officers are reportedly unhappy with this cosmetic change. Indonesian presidents are virtual dynasts, so much so that when one leaves it is seen as the end of a dynasty. Indonesia, since its independence in 1945, has had only two presidents, and both had to be forced out of office—violently.

The armed forces, which had first opened fire on student demonstrators, and then watched on as rioters mobbed, looted, attacked ethnic Chinese—in all, 600 people were killed—acted with restraint when students took over Parliament for two whole days to press for Suharto's ouster, even removing Suharto memorabilia from the building. Earlier, the rioting led to an exodus of foreign nationals and the Chinese. The panic spread to the small Indian community, who were evacuated in batches on Air-India flights. But the Indians were never targeted, and according to Indonesian officials, needn't have worried. "Indians faced no more threat to their property than they would have in a riot of this proportion in Chennai, Mumbai or Calcutta," said one Indian stranded in Kuala Lumpur when the rioting started.

The Indians, who like the Chinese, have had a presence in Indonesia for centuries, constitute far less than the eight million Chinese in a nation of 200 million people. Intermarriage and adoption of Indonesian cultural ways makes it difficult to recognise an Indonesian Indian, and even the Indian Embassy in Jakarta does not have a clue to how many Indians there are. That is only to be expected, since the Indian is more deeply integrated into Indonesian society than, for instance, is the case in Malaysia. Aceh, the nearest point to India, and 90 km away from the Andamans, has a high concentration of Indians.

Political battles in Indonesia are fought within Javanese guidelines, and according to writer Promoedya Ananta Toer, this Javanese dominance is the scourge of Indonesian polity. The tension between various ethnic identities was already rising when the currency debacle hit Indonesia.

Suharto sent distress signals to the IMF, and even signed a $40 billion bail-out plan with the aid agency. Incidentally, the student protesters want the former president's wealth, also pegged at $40 billion, to be confiscated. What aggravated the political uncertainty was the IMF's preconditions that subsidies and other social largesse be removed. This came at a time when the country was reeling under a severe cash crunch. The student protests were strengthened by the mass anger against rising prices after the subsidies were withdrawn. And the target—of the Indonesians and the IMF which spoke of stringent action if economic reforms were derailed—became Suharto himself.

THE problem has been brewing since March, when Suharto was re-elected for a seventh term as president. Like neighbouring Malaysia, he was saddled with rising criticism, even from within the armed forces—his main prop for remaining in power—about the activities of his children in business. Suharto never explained the charges and even defended them.

Now, even as the new president sits on his throne of thorns, the common strain of thought is "the king is dying, but who will take over?" Habibie would not have stood a chance had there been an election, even if the People's Assembly would do the choosing with its members mostly loyal to President Suharto. The international pressure to have a democratic election coupled with the armed forces' desire to have one of their own at the helm could open the country to further uncertainty and doubt.

It is likely that a military man will take over as president eventually. For, there is little change in the prevailing view within the armed forces that the president should be a Javanese general who is both a Muslim and a believer in the syncretic Hindu-Buddhist beliefs that pervade much of Java, the most populated of the Indonesian islands.

Habibie doesn't quite fit the bill. Apart from the fact that he is not Javanese, Habibie has little backing in the military and is still trying to mend fences with Muslim intellectuals. And though Suharto once proclaimed Habibie as "God's gift to Indonesia", the people are not so sure.

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