JAKARTA, INDONESIA -- After guiding this vast island nation through 25 years of economic growth and political stability, President Suharto is getting signals from key quarters that Indonesia is ready for a change in leadership.
The signs are coming not from any organized political opposition, which is effectively banned, but from the military establishment, which was at one time Suharto's support base and is still the final arbiter of power here.
Since last year, several senior officers have been suggesting that politics in Indonesia should be more open and that citizens should be allowed to debate issues more freely.
The Indonesian Observer newspaper recently quoted army chief of staff Gen. Edi Sudradjat as saying, better-educated of Indonesians want a change from "the foot-stomping, father-knows-best leadership style."
To be sure, the military's view of political openness does not mean that the generals are ready to relinquish control of the process; the next president is likely to be a military man.
The military appears to see itself as the main force behind democratic change -- albeit slow and measured in typical Javanese fashion -- and has begun to pull back from day-to-day running of the government in favor of civilian technocrats.
At the same time, the military seems to be trying to push for a change at the top, encouraging Suharto to retire at the end of his term in 1993.
The debate, in part, reflects how Indonesia -- the world's fifth most populous country -- has failed to remain immune from political changes in other parts of the world, where popular pressure for democracy has transformed communist nations and rocked some non-communist authoritarian governments.
Still, changes in the political landscape here are expected to evolve slowly, without great tumult. A large democracy movement has not risen here, in part, because of the government's economic success, which has resulted in improved living standards and the rapid development of rural areas.
In addition, Suharto has never been personally accused of corruption or any abuses of his power, despite public criticism of his children's business dealings.
"There is a general acceptance that Suharto saved the country from calamity," said Professor Yuwono Sudarsono, a political scientist. "There is no hatred against the system. . . . The patronage system has worked well. The middle classes and the government officials know that if they wait their turn, they can move up."
Furthermore, almost all Indonesians -- including anti-government critics -- say they want to avoid the kind of upheaval that rocked Eastern Europe, China and, closer to home, the Philippines and South Korea in recent years when pro-democracy forces demanded change from their governments.
Memories are still vivid here of 1966, when an estimated 1 million people were killed in a bloody army-led purge against the Communist Party of Indonesia, just after Suharto came to power.
"People ask why we don't have a Tiananmen Square here -- or a Solidarity movement, or what happened in East Germany or Romania," said Slamet Bratanata, a prominent anti-government critic and member of a small dissident group called the Petition of 50. The answer, he said, is that "here, as soon as we have something spontaneous, the fear is that '66 will repeat itself."
Indonesia under Suharto has seen one of its longest periods of political calm -- but analysts say they wonder whether the conditions that produced the earlier violence can rise again and lead to new chaos.
The stability here has come at a price: most political activity has been stifled or carefully controlled. The press exercises self-censorship under the constant threat of government closure. Political parties and social groups have been forced to adopt the state's official five-point ideology called "pancasila." Pancasila's guiding principles are monotheism, humanitarianism, national unity, democracy by consensus and social justice.
The last two years, however, have seen some signs of liberalization. The parliament, once a rubber-stamp body, now actively debates issues, and government ministers are brought in to testify. The range of issues being discussed in the press has been broadened, although still often couched in code words. And the succession debate is being openly waged to a degree unthinkable five years ago.
That debate is being watched closely abroad because any instability in Indonesia, which strategically straddles the Indian and Pacific Oceans, would reverberate across Southeast Asia and could even affect Japan, which gets its Middle Eastern oil through the Strait of Malacca, one of the world's most important sea passages.
Also, Western and regional analysts want to ensure that this pro-Western government is not replaced by a leadership inclined toward the old "confrontation" foreign policy of the late president Sukarno, who threatened his neighbors and took a belligerent posture toward the West.
At the moment, such an occurrence appears unlikely.
Indonesia is anchored in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has friendly ties to the West. The growth of Islamic fundamentalism is not viewed as a threat to the country -- the world's largest Moslem nation -- because the brand of Islam practiced here is extremely tolerant, and the state cracks down on religious extremists.
In addition, diplomats and others here say that the government enjoys wide support for its economic policy, which calls for further deregulation and more foreign investment.
The only potential threats to stability, according to most of those interviewed here, are the glaring income gap between urban rich and rural poor and the rising demands of more affluent, better-educated Indonesians.
Several Indonesian analysts and foreign diplomats said it is ironic that the desire for greater political liberties is coming in part from the very group that Suharto's steady management of the economy helped create -- the emerging middle class. "Suharto is a victim of his own success," said a prominent Indonesian editor. "The more his policy has succeeded, the more he himself becomes outdated."
Key leaders of the military establishment appear to have tapped into those new popular aspirations and are presenting themselves as the force for change. Some have made it known that they would like Suharto to step down when his term expires and make way for a younger candidate of their choosing.
For example, Defense Minister Benny Murdani, the former armed forces commander, said in a May speech, "People in general do not like change and are therefore inclined to maintain the status quo or attempt to ensure continuity." But, he said, that while some link with the past is desirable, "continuity also tends to impede the process of advancement." "Continuity" is generally regarded to mean Suharto's hold on power.
One month after Murdani's speech, Lt. Gen. Harsudiono Hartas, the armed forces deputy commander for social and political affairs, said in an interview with the Editor magazine that if Suharto decides not to run for office, the military will tell him "that we have our own candidates." Hartas said Suharto would be free to endorse one of the military choices, but he added: "However, we have to ask him why he wants that candidate. We, on the other hand, have our assessment. That's what you call dialogue."
Analysts familiar with the subtle Javanese style of speaking found Hartas' statement surprisingly candid. To say that the military has already considered alternative presidential candidates was interpreted here as a warning to Suharto that some armed forces leaders want him to retire.
Most analysts agreed that should Suharto step aside, the most likely military-backed candidate would be the armed forces commander Try Sutrisno. "He has the support of the junior officers and the president's family," said one Indonesian analyst.
Sutrisno's predecessor as military commander, Murdani, is still considered to wield more influence at military headquarters and among the officer corps. But Murdani is viewed as an unlikely candidate for president because he is a Catholic in a country that is 88 percent Moslem.
Suharto is keeping his own council, but has indicated that he would like to continue in the presidency past 1993. He is frequently shown on government television, opening new factories in rural areas, and he has held publicized sessions with leading Islamic clerics, suggesting to some that he is trying to build a new base among the country's Moslem fundamentalists.
"He's shifting, to try to cultivate what is not his natural constituency," said a Western diplomat who has been monitoring Indonesian politics.
"What he's clearly been doing," said the diplomat, "is cultivating the Moslem organizations. It's a dangerous card, but Suharto has quite successfully curried favor with the main Moslem organizations."