During 16 years in power, one of the few overt challenges to President Suharto came in 1976 when a bureaucrat working in the Agriculture Department, claiming to be a new "just prince" of lore destined to lead the nation, drafted a document attacking alleged corruption, morale decline and impiety under Suharto's rule. The mystic, Sawito Kartowibowo, also demanded that Suharto transfer power to him.

The demand might have been laughed off and the whole episode dismissed except that five prominent national figures, including former vice president Mohammed Hatta, and the leaders of major religious groups signed the document. They were soon persuaded to change their minds, however, and Sawito, 45, was tried and jailed on charges of plotting against the president.

The strange affair illustrated the pull of mysticism on natives of Indonesia's populous island of Java, including Suharto and members of his entourage, who do not take talk of a new "just prince" lightly. But the story did not end there.

Last year Sawito's lawyer, Sunardi, argued in an appeal that his client's charges were justified, saying Suharto was linked to the murder of six generals in an unsuccessful 1965 coup attempt that launched Suharto's bid for the presidency.

Sunardi cited the defense claims of one of the coup leaders, colonel Abdul Latief, that he had acted on behalf of Suharto.

Suharto, then a general in charge of Jakarta's Strategic Command troops, crushed the coup attempt, which was blamed on the Indonesian Communist Party. Bloody reprisals against Communists followed, and Latief was sentenced to life imprisonment.

After airing the allegations and urging parliament to investigate Suharto's role in the 1965 events, Sunardi was arrested in April on charges of slandering the president.

Like the murky events of 1965, Suharto today remains an enigma. Steeped in the traditions of his native region in central Java, "the smiling general," as he likes to be known, runs a regime that is hard to characterize. Opponents call him a dictator, but a preoccupation with consensus and harmony in the traditional Javanese style of rule seems to take the harsh edges off his regime.

Even the legendary corruption and influence-peddling that a variety of foreign diplomats and Indonesian sources attribute to him and his family have their redeeming features. Money goes to personal projects of the president, such as donations to mosques or charities, the sources say, and "trickles down" to a wide range of beneficiaries.

Suharto continues to live relatively modestly, shunning the presidential palace and residing in the same house on a residential street in central Jakarta that he occupied before he came to power.

Yet it is clear that as the 61-year-old Suharto heads toward certain reelection to a new five-year term by the People's Consultative Assembly in March, he and his government are growing increasingly intolerant of any perceived criticism. Restrictions on the press have been tightened, and censors black out articles deemed critical in foreign publications that are distributed here.

Part of the reason for this may be that such criticism jars the refinement that marks the administrative style of traditional Javanese officials. Great power and authority are demonstrated by seeming to rule with minimum effort, and orders are issued almost indirectly in polite, unobtrusive terms.

Suharto's style differs markedly from that of his only predecessor, the late president Sukarno whose often mercurial, boastful and bombastic pronouncements drew international attention. Thus while Suharto has ruled almost as long as Sukarno did, the former general remains somewhat overshadowed by the man he displaced following the 1965 abortive coup.

"Before, Sukarno was the main source of all law," says Yusuf Wanandi, a director of a government-sponsored think tank. "He was the great leader of the revolution, and his decrees were higher than legislation. But Suharto always tries to create a consensus. He doesn't want to be the dictator as such. Suharto is not the type to be an absolute ruler."

His critics disagree.

"It's complete one-man control at the moment," says retired general Abdul Haris Nasution. "All decisions are in the hands of Suharto."

Another dissident, a former student activist who was jailed for two years on subversion charges, goes further: "He's a tyrant. He's a dictator. His family is corrupt. He meddles in business. He never tolerates opposition. He says he wants consensus, but what he means is his consensus."

However, resentment of corruption in high places appears limited mainly to students and an educated elite.

Noting that a four-star general earns a salary equivalent to less than $200 a month, a senior Western diplomat said, "Indonesians accept that people must supplement their incomes in various ways. We call it corruption. The Indonesians don't give it that emotional connotation. But they believe there are limits beyond which one shouldn't go."

According to diplomats and Indonesian sources, Suharto's wealth comes largely from holdings of his wife, Tien Suharto, and other relatives. In 1978, an Australian scholar, Richard Robison, produced a study on the Indonesian military's role in private business that detailed the Suharto family's interests in 15 companies, including a huge flour mill, a hotel and two cement plants.

Other sources insist the interests range far wider.

"Suharto has his fingers in every pie," a Western diplomat said. "He just makes commissions off everything he can." But "in Indonesian terms that's just good business."