Indonesia still facing big hurdles Habibie calls for unity and outlines reforms, but many are skeptical

Role for Suharto unclear

Parliamentary session is sought to 'elect the real president'

May 22, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesians awakened this morning to their first full day in 32 years without Suharto in power.

But a hand-picked successor was in his place facing the same huge problems that forced the aged strongman to step down: a terrifying economic crisis and an angry population.

Suharto, who had ruled Indonesia since 1966, resigned yesterday morning under overwhelming public pressure because of his inability to pull the country out of its financial meltdown. His vice president and close friend, B.J. Habibie, was sworn in as president moments later on national television.

No sooner had Habibie taken power than opposition leaders declared him a transitional political figure unlikely to last more than six months. Students derided him as a Suharto crony, ill-suited to reform a corrupt, authoritarian government over which his patron had presided.

"Habibie is just Suharto's puppet," read a sign taped to a large planter yesterday morning at the parliament complex, where students have held a sit-in for several days.

While Suharto resigned with an apology to the Indonesian people, it remained uncertain what role he might play, especially with his protege as president.

Former Environmental Minister Emil Salim and others urged parliament to call for a special session to elect a new leader. The People's Consultative Assembly "will elect the real president," he said.

Habibie, 61, went on national television last night to call for unity. In a brief speech, he pledged to appoint an honest, professional Cabinet; accept public criticism; and honor the government's commitment to implement economic reforms in exchange for billions of dollars in aid from the International Monetary Fund.

He also vowed to crack down on government corruption -- a particularly sore point in a nation where prices have risen dramatically and millions have lost their jobs in recent months, while the wealthy have transferred much of their money offshore.

Indonesia -- the world's fourth most-populous country -- is the greatest casualty of the Asian economic crisis, which began last summer.

Investor concern over corruption, uncertainty over Suharto's potential successor and a weak banking system sent Indonesia's economy into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover.

"I'm keenly aware that this is an enormous challenge," said Habibie, referring to the task of rebuilding the economy. "Let us all end the conflict which is currently among us."

No mention of elections

In his taped speech, Habibie never mentioned elections. And the former technology and research minister gave few details about how he intends to reform the political and economic systems.

Some opposition leaders said yesterday that they were waiting to see the makeup of Habibie's Cabinet to gauge his level of commitment to reform. If it proved to be an inclusive, professional group as promised, Indonesians might respond positively, they said.

"I believe that in two or three weeks, Mr. Habibie's fate will be decided," said Amien Rais, the head of a 28 million-member Muslim organization who led the call to oust the 76-year-old Suharto.

As the nation moved on without Suharto, who came to power in a military coup, it seemed like a vessel sailing into uncharted political waters after years of autocratic rule.

Questions loom: Will Habibie be replaced within six months as most expect or serve out the rest of Suharto's term until 2003?

Who might fill the political vacuum left by Suharto's departure and what lies in store for Suharto's family, which has amassed enormous wealth through political connections while essentially functioning as Indonesia's monarchy?

"Nationalize all of Suharto's family assets and use the money to pay off the Indonesian foreign debt," suggested one handmade sign at the parliament complex yesterday.

Finally, how and when might the government reform the nation's election law to allow people to vote directly for their parliamentary representatives?

"There is no [democratic] tradition," acknowledged Subroto, who leads the National Reformation Group, an umbrella organization of anti-Suharto leaders. "But we will start now. We will not go back. That is for sure."

Nation's third president

Habibie, the third president of Indonesia, owes his career to his close friendship with Suharto. Habibie's family became friends with Suharto when he was stationed in the army near the Habibie home on the island of Sulawesi in the 1950s.

Habibie spent nearly 20 years in Germany, where he earned a doctorate in aeronautics, and speaks German fluently. He joined Suharto's Cabinet two decades ago and presided over the development of strategic industries, including steelmaking and

satellite technology.

Critics see him as spendthrift attracted to big-government projects that seem to run contrary to the need for a more efficient, market-driven system in Indonesia. They cite his establishment of a financially troubled national airplane construction company as a sign of poor judgment in economic matters.

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