Good news from Indonesia

New leaders: Something like democracy prevailed and now faces daunting challenges of economy.

October 23, 1999

THE MOSTLY peaceful revolution in the streets of Indonesia in May 1998 may turn into one of democracy's greatest success stories, although it faces obstacles aplenty.

The artful political contraption known as the People's Consultative Assembly did not merely mask the retention of power by the army clique around General Wiranto and the Golkar Party of the fallen dictator Suharto. Many Indonesians feared it would.

Nor did it hand executive power to the election plurality winner, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the opaque heroine of the impoverished and daughter of the founder of independence, Sukarno.

Instead, it created a team with broad support, and a president whose party came in only fourth in the June election, but who is a widely admired, unifying figure. Since President Abdurrahman Wahid has suffered a stroke that left him frail, the vice president looms large as chief operational officer and successor. And as that is the popular Megawati who is satisfied with the arrangement and friendly with Mr. Wahid, it appears this arrangement can work.

Mr. Wahid is a respected Muslim scholar and popular civic leader with an ecumenical dimension. If not too many people's first choice, he may have been everyone's second. While his health holds, he can provide cover while Megawati, who has no governmental or administrative experience and only recent political activity, learns the ropes.

They need to calm Indonesia down, accept East Timor's independence, fulfill IMF requirements for a transparent banking system, protect ethnic and religious minorities, keep the army content, restart economic growth and make the experiment in democracy succeed into permanence.

The hapless B. J. Habibie, the henchman of deposed dictator Suharto who failed to distance himself while interim president, is the loser in the politicking. He is also the hero of the transition to a more democratic society that made his defeat possible and peaceful.

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