Indonesia's highest legislative body today elected a reformist politician as its speaker, a position that could gain real power under the country's democratic reforms.
Voting by secret ballot, the People's Consultative Assembly elected Amien Rais of the National Mandate Party. Rais is a leader of a bloc of small parties called the Axis Front that could determine the outcome of the presidential race to be held in less than three weeks.
The choice of a first-rank politician like Rais indicated that the assembly speaker is likely to gain power under constitutional reforms the legislature will consider during this session. The reforms are expected to dilute the powers of the president.
In previous years, the assembly speaker was a figurehead. Under the authoritarian governments of President Suharto and his predecessor Sukarno, the assembly rubber-stamped the president's policies and most decisions were unanimous.
Rais received 305 votes for speaker. His closest rival received 279; six others won a total of 63.
Rais's election makes it more likely that the assembly will ratify East Timor's vote for independence. Rais said last week that Jakarta must respect the outcome of the territory's Aug. 30 referendum and "accept that East Timor is no longer part of Indonesia."
The assembly, elected last June in the nation's freest ballot in four decades, will choose the president on Oct. 20, three weeks earlier than planned.