Not even the Wizard of Oz slid as swiftly from apparent invincibility to apparent impotence as Indonesia's President Suharto. Now his demise seems readily explainable, as these things always are in retrospect. When his economic miracle morphed into economic crisis, Asia's longest-reigning dictator lost the legitimacy that had masked or excused his regime's many failings while allowing him to buy off potential foes. And when he was forced to kowtow so visibly to the IMF to ensure his nation's survival, he lost the aura of inevitable power that had kept so many of his voiceless subjects living in fear.

So what is striking now, in retrospect, is not Suharto's fall -- not the apparently frail old man who emerged with trembling voice from behind the Wizard's curtain -- but rather how, up until the very last moment, the outside world doubted and disparaged Indonesia's "People Power." Indonesia was not ready for democracy, was the consensus that only Indonesians chose to ignore; Suharto could not fall.

Why so many held so misguided a view for so long is worth examining now because many of the same voices can be heard again, touting stability over democratic change. The Clinton administration, to its credit, is no longer among them; President Clinton quickly recognized Suharto's resignation as only the first step of a necessary process of democratic change. But many others seem ready to send the unruly students home. Enough upheaval for now, is their message; let's get back to the business of healing a crippled economy -- even though Suharto's repressive system remains, so far, unchanged.

Their logic is the same as when they were explaining why Suharto could not be replaced. Indonesia is too poor, and its economy too damaged, to manage a political transition now. The opposition is too fragmented, without ideology or program, united only in its disgust for the nepotism and corruption of the Suharto regime. There is no single opposition leader with the stature to unite a nation of so many islands, religions and ethnic groups.

Mix in the absence of viable political parties and civic institutions after 32 years of stifling dictatorial rule. Recall the lack of democratic tradition in a country that has experienced only two transitions in the past half-century, both violent. Add a Javanese culture of patrimonial rule, communal values and mystical respect for power wielded from above.

What emerges, it is argued, stands in contrast to Asian countries where people power forged successful democratic transitions. South Korea had the middle class that Indonesia mostly lacks; the Philippines, a stronger memory of democracy and a single leader behind whom the opposition could unite.

But before those peaceful revolutions triumphed, there were equally strong arguments, now conveniently forgotten, about why they too were bound to fail: South Korea's Confucian respect for hierarchy; the legacy of big-plantation society in the Philippines; the absence in either place of any opposition leader experienced in governing.

None of these analyses was entirely wrong. Any country's history and culture do shape and limit its future possibilities. Democracy isn't born when a dictator resigns, nor even with the first free election; it evolves, and with luck strengthens, over years. Only three months ago did South Korea manage its first transition from ruling to opposition party, a full decade after the inauguration of civilian rule. Even today, many Koreans criticize their own political parties as too hierarchical and boss-driven -- too undemocratic.

And the obstacles here may in fact be greater; Suharto was a more effective and entrenched dictator than Ferdinand Marcos or Chun Doo Hwan. Emmy Hafild is a dynamic environmentalist and democracy activist now fighting for true reform, determined that Suharto's longtime protege B. J. Habibie should not simply be allowed to take Suharto's place. But she admits that the opposition is divided and uncertain how to respond -- which she suspects is what Suharto had in mind all along.

"For 32 years, we were not allowed to organize," she said Friday. "Now we are in a state of shock, and Suharto is ahead of us again."

But the existence of formidable impediments tells you very little about people's determination to achieve some measure of self-governance. That determination, as Indonesians are now showing in their courageous turn, transcends all cultures and -- despite what Communists have always said and, in China, still say -- transcends all income levels, too.

The failure to recognize this, time after time, reflects a failure of imagination -- few, six months ago, could picture an Indonesia without Suharto -- but also a fear of the chaos that any revolution can spawn. Given the brutal military suppression of unarmed popular movements in Burma and China, or the wars on the fringe of the ex-Soviet Union, or the frightening spasm of violence here 10 days ago, such fear is understandable.

But, even setting morality aside, a policy built only on such fears is bound to fail. Indonesia's economic troubles arose from Suharto family corruption. Without some assurance that the economy will no longer be managed for the benefit of a few, that sacrifice will be fairly shared, that looted billions will be accounted for, Indonesians are not going to accept the inevitable privations of economic restructuring.

It's as true now as it was a week ago, in other words, that economic recovery is impossible without political reform -- and replacing one unelected leader with another doesn't qualify. Democratic change isn't an alternative to stability, it's a necessary precondition. And in Indonesia, the battle for such change still lies ahead. The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.