Rumbles in Indonesia Megawati threat: Government decides who may lead opposition.

July 24, 1996

IT WAS 30 years ago that General Suharto seized power in Indonesia from the leftist independence leader, Sukarno, during a period of strife and a failed Communist power grab. He has ruled ever since, as president since 1968, and he wins elections in which the phony opposition supports him. This has produced an authoritarian state in which prosperity and capitalism are booming, yet another Asian miracle. Regional rebellions flare, FTC along cultural and racial fault lines, on just two of the archipelago's islands.

Democracy is not a necessary precondition for a robust free market, but capitalist growth produces pressures for democracy. South Korea and Taiwan have shown how that works. Now the pressure is reaching Indonesia.

Part of the new anxiety attaches to Suharto himself, 75 and just back from a medical trip to Europe, assuring investors that he is really quite well. Part of it is the new vigor in the opposition. In a scenario reminiscent of other Asian Islamic majority countries, the middle-aged daughter of the one-time charismatic and dictatorial leftist founder, Megawati Sukarnoputri, won leadership of the formerly tame opposition Indonesia Democratic Party.

With parliamentary elections scheduled for next year and a presidential election in 1998, and Suharto intentions and health a question mark, Megawati scared the regime. So it put rivals up to kicking her out of party leadership. That backfired. Her loyalists hung on to party headquarters. Jesse Jackson, in town to throw the spotlight on low-paid labor in U.S.-owned running shoe factories, held a rally with her.

So just when Secretary of State Warren Christopher and other dignitaries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) arrived in Jakarta for an ASEAN forum, the opposition looked feisty and the government weak. This is not an appearance such governments tolerate long. While Suharto still has vitality, his regime can crack down more harshly, or it can open up the scheduled elections to real opposition including Megawati.

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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