Indonesian President B. J. Habibie conceded today that June's parliamentary elections left him with "less mandate" to lead the country than his rival, Megawati Sukarnoputri, and said he would have "no problem" stepping down if a national assembly chooses her to replace him as president.
But in an interview, Habibie also made clear he does not consider the contest over until the electors meet later this year. He cited other countries, notably Australia, where the party that won the most votes was unable to form a government and is now in opposition.
"I have less mandate," he said. "I have indeed less. But it doesn't mean I will be compared with those who have only 6 percent," and relative to them, "I have more."
Habibie made his comments shortly after he unilaterally declared the results of the election valid, bypassing a stalemated elections commission.
Those results show Megawati's party first, with 34 percent of the vote, and Habibie's Golkar party next with 22 percent. "I have taken the initiative to declare the election result as valid," Habibie said.
Although Megawati has claimed a mandate to govern and is considered in the strongest position to be chosen president, Habibie's party hopes to form a coalition with smaller, like-minded Islamic parties, regional representatives and the military.
"The president will be chosen by the 700 members of the people's assembly, and it must be more than 50 percent," Habibie said. "That's the beauty of democracy."
Habibie declined to criticize Megawati or comment on her capacity to govern. "I don't know about her performance," he said. "I don't know about her capability." But he distanced himself from some Muslim clerics, saying her sex should not bar her from the presidency.
Habibie also said he does not consider the June election results a mandate for change. He noted that the three parties that did the best--Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), Golkar and the Islamic-based United Development Party (PPP)--are established parties. Of the 48 parties that contested the election, six accounted for more than 90 percent of the votes.
After 14 months in office, Habibie said he will present himself to the national assembly as the president who took over in a time of turbulence and accomplished "Mission: Impossible." He said that in May 1998, Indonesia was teetering on the brink of a bloody revolution that he headed off.
"I have prevented a revolution in my country," Habibie said. "I changed that into an accelerated evolution. That means the changes are happening as in a revolution, but not cutting your relations with the past."
He cited the accomplishments of his peaceful "evolution" as the freeing of political prisoners, unshackling the press, lifting restrictions on political activity, an agreement for a referendum on independence for East Timor and the first free elections in four decades.
Habibie remains widely unpopular here and is not recognized for those accomplishments, a fact he attributes to the hostility of nongovernment organizations that supported Megawati's PDI-P, and to the local news media, which he claims is biased against him. "They hate me because I'm Golkar," he said. "It's understandable, because they had traumas" under the regime of the discredited former president Suharto.
Habibie, a Muslim, paraphrased the Bible in answering those critics: "Jesus Christ said forgive them, they don't know what they're doing."
One of his most dramatic gestures was granting residents of East Timor the right to decide, in a U.N.-sponsored referendum, whether to remain part of Indonesia or become an independent state. That referendum is set for Aug. 30 and has been criticized by Habibie's opponents, including Megawati, as unconstitutional.
Since Habibie's independence offer, East Timor has been wracked by violence, mostly carried out by pro-Indonesian militias that human rights groups and others say receive arms and backing from the Indonesian armed forces. But Habibie denied today that the armed forces were involved. He said the military is doing all it can to maintain security in the province, which Indonesia invaded in 1975 and annexed a year later.
Habibie's offer to East Timor is believed to have sparked similar demands on the opposite end of the archipelago by separatist rebels in the violence-torn province of Aceh. But Habibie today ruled out any similar formula for Aceh or other restive provinces, which he said would face the full brunt of military might if they tried to separate.
"They cannot have it," Habibie said. "In Timor, it's just like in the United States, Puerto Rico. Aceh is just like, for the United States, Georgia. You cannot separate Georgia--or New York, or Alaska, or California or Washington--from the United States of America."
"East Timor was never legitimately belonging to Indonesia," he said, in a rare admission that Indonesia's claim to the province is questionable. "I don't know how we came to that problem--it's not my deal. But I tried to solve that. I had to solve it."