Indonesians look past new leader Ally of Suharto’s seen as unlikely to bring reform

Washington Times, May 22, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Newly installed President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie led his country into the post-Suharto era yesterday with a vow to increase democratic freedoms, prompting a mix of relief and suspicion from riot-weary Indonesians.

Few believed the close ally of Indonesia's longtime ruler would be more than a transitional figure, buying time for emotions to cool.

"I would like to express my commitment to . . . execute reformation that is gradual and constitutional in all aspects," Mr. Habibie said in a nationwide address just hours after the resignation of President Suharto after 32 years in office.

Mr. Habibie, who had been vice president, pledged "to revitalize the social and economic life, increase democratic political life to follow the demands of the times and the generation, and uphold the law."

But he made no mention of early elections, a demand being heard even from within Mr. Habibie's own camp. And the economic problems that created the political crisis remain as severe as ever.

Speaking at a press conference in Washington, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin said, "Habibie was Suharto's vice president, and we obviously had very serious concerns about the economic conditions under Suharto.

"We want economic reform and political reform in Indonesia," Mr. Rubin said, calling on Mr. Habibie to "commit himself" to the program of reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund. Food and fuel price increases required by the program helped spark the unrest that brought down Suharto.

Within hours of the swearing-in, both the political establishment and the opposition were speculating on how long Mr. Habibie would last in office.

"I would anticipate that he will be forced into new elections within three months," predicted one minister in the outgoing Cabinet.

Most of the students who had occupied the parliament building for three days began heading home but vowed to return if a plenary session of parliament was not quickly convened to take up serious reform.

"We will keep our focus on this institution," Rama Pratama, the head of the University of Indonesia student body, told reporters outside parliament. "The most important reform is institutional reform. And we will see whether parliament executes these reforms."

"In general what was demanded by the students has been achieved - Suharto has resigned. We now give the opportunity to Mr. Habibie to map out the agenda for a clean government structure and policies that will truly relieve the people from the crisis," said another student leader.

The army, too, began to head back to the barracks. The presidential palace and central square around the independence monument remained sealed off by tanks and troops, but other sections of the capital were slowly returning to normal.

But intense political jockeying was under way behind the scenes. Several opposition leaders turned down offers to join the new president's Cabinet at least for the time being, according to sources involved in the negotiations.

About one-third of the ministers in the new Cabinet were expected to be holdovers from the previous government, the sources said, while leaders of the country's two tame parliamentary "opposition" parties would be included.

Faced with an alternative almost certain to produce bloodshed, even Suharto's fiercest critics appeared ready to accept Mr. Habibie's temporary presence in the presidential palace.

"If the Cabinet consists of people with integrity, {if} they are not corrupt, they are professional and represent the components of the whole nation, then I will endorse Mr. Habibie's government," said Muslim leader Amien Rais, who has emerged as a key opposition figure.

In his hand-over of power, Mr. Suharto said Mr. Habibie would serve out the balance of the five-year presidential term that lasts until 2003. By late in the day, it was clear he would be lucky to last six months.

"I am afraid Mr. Habibie will not obtain the full trust of the people," said former housing minister Siswono Yudohusodo. "Therefore, it would be the biggest and wisest step for Habibie . . . to quickly convene an extraordinary plenary meeting of the Assembly."

A surrogate son to the 76-year-old former president, Mr. Habibie is regarded by many critics as a creature of the corrupt and authoritarian system through which Mr. Suharto ruled.

"Habibie's line of thinking is the same as Suharto's because he once said Suharto is his guru," critic Arbi Sanit predicted. "Therefore he will operate under the same system with the same forces in power and not supported by people power."

Widely unpopular among Indonesia's powerful generals, viewed with distaste by the international financial community, and with no real political power base of his own, Mr. Habibie faces a struggle to retain power.

Having achieved political change through a mass movement for the first time in their history, the Indonesian people are unlikely to accept a return to the old ways.

"Change has to be based on values, on democratic principles, the rule of law and the pursuit of a liberal economy. No one is acceptable who does not espouse those principles," said Adnan Nasution, a longtime political activist once jailed by Suharto.

Photos (A, color), A) PAST, PRESENT PONDER FUTURE: Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, Indonesia's new president, reads a statement at his swearing-in yesterday as former President Suharto, who governed for 32 years, listens. (WILD ART, A1); B) Indonesian news hawkers do a brisk business yesterday in Jakarta after Suharto announced his resignation., Both By AP


Copyright Washington Times Library May 22, 1998

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