Suharto's System May Be Harder
To Uproot Than the Man Himself
By Keith B. Richburg
Though Suharto is gone, Indonesia's power establishment remains in place. Suharto's longtime protege, B.J. Habibie, is president. The parliament, and the constituent assembly that gives the president his mandate, are comprised of Suharto loyalists, mostly appointed directly or indirectly by him. Senior military officers, judges, the heads of state-owned corporations were appointed by him. In a country that for 32 years has known only one-man rule, that one man's imprint is evident throughout society -- and may prove more difficult to uproot than the man himself.
In the end, it was that power establishment that turned against Suharto and hastened his demise, not to change the system but to preserve their place in it. Suharto had become a liability: the head of the power structure had to go so the structure could survive.
But that power structure is facing a continuous and serious threat from new and potent forces for change that might have seemed unimaginable just a few months ago. At the core of that new force are the university students who began their movement in February with little organization and no real leadership, and at the time were given little prospect of success.
The students managed to give voice to the wider frustrations of a society bottled up under a tightly controlled system that allowed little room for public debate and dissent. What began as a campus-based protest has mushroomed to include academics, middle-class professionals, labor and human rights activists, journalists, environmentalists and many others whose voices were stifled under Suharto's New Order regime.
The power establishment believes it has won, managing to forestall a revolution by removing its onerous top.
The forces for change have already been unleashed and are unlikely to be satisfied with less than a complete overhaul of the system. Suharto is gone. And now the real battle -- the battle for change, for reform, or reformasi as it is called here -- is just beginning.
"This was not a revolution -- the power establishment was not swept out of office," said a senior diplomat based in Jakarta. Now, he said, "there will be a continuing struggle over who will control the change. . . . There will be a struggle over the pace and direction of the opportunities that have been opened up."
In the short term, that struggle will center on some crucial issues that Habibie must soon address.
He must decide whether he sees himself as a transitional president who will serve only until new rules can be drafted to allow for fresh elections, or whether he intends to try to stay in power for the remainder of Suharto's term, until March 2003.
Habibie has made no statement on the question, but one of his advisers, political scientist Dewi Fortuna Anwar, said in a televised interview, "No president likes to think he's only going to be there for a few months. But he understands the pressures on him."
But Bruce Gale, of the Singapore-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy Group, said: "We haven't heard any talk about new elections, which is what Suharto promised a few days ago. I think he [Habibie] is hoping that the change will be enough -- and it's not."
Habibie also must decide whether he will call a special session of the constituent assembly, known by its Indonesian acronym MPR. That body sets the broad outlines of national policy for the president and last met two months ago; at the time, reform was not part of the agenda.
Habibie could call it back, as the reform advocates are demanding, to revise the policy to embrace a new reform agenda. But he also runs the risk that the same body could be swept up by a reformist mood and vote to remove him as president.
In determining the outcome of the looming struggle over reform, a key unresolved question here is whether those new forces of change will be able to maintain their current momentum, after Suharto's departure and an early statement from Habibie that he heard and understood their call.
Reformers widely distrust Habibie, who is seen as the quintessential product of the system, put in place to preserve, not destroy, the New Order regime.
"Not only Suharto, but Habibie also needs to retire," said one activist, Bambang Subono, of the Foundation for the Advocacy of Civil and Political Rights. "The demonstrations must continue until complete reform is achieved." But already the students have relinquished their control of the parliament building, giving up without a fight the most potent focal point of their opposition to the governing system.
"If you put the process of reform in the hands of the constitutional remnants of the New Order, then you would have to be a wild optimist to think it's going to move in the right direction," the diplomat said.
There are already signs that the movement is becoming divided, with some change advocates willing to give Habibie the benefit of the doubt.
On the parliament grounds, there had already been intense debate among students and their sympathizers over whether the occupation should temporarily end even before the military marched them out.
Some observers believe fatigue is setting in -- that is, after months of economic disruption, political turbulence and social unrest that has led to rioting, Indonesians are growing tired and would welcome a respite.
Juwono Sudarsono, a political scientist and newly named education minister in Habibie's cabinet, said there is now "a lot of political jockeying" among some parliamentary factions, particularly the Muslim groups, to support Habibie's stay in office and a delay of reforms leading to new elections.
"It's a very quick, very fluid situation," he said. "At this point, they feel the momentum has shifted into Habibie's favor, that there is this inertia, and that people will not want to have any protest movement on the ground."
The Indonesian economy is the other possible determining factor. It was the economic collapse that fueled the student protest movement, and many believe the continuing economic disrepair will sustain it.
"Regardless of what the students do, the fact is that the economy is going to get worse," said Gale, of the consultancy group. With the departure of many ethnic Chinese and expatriate businessmen, he said, "it's going to go down even faster. . . . The economic forces are going to provide fertile ground for any opposition group."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company