Youthful protesters burned vehicles, erected barricades and hurled gasoline bombs at armed riot policemen in central Jakarta today, seeking to pressure the Indonesian people's assembly sitting in a crucial session to pursue the popular reform movement begun last year.
At the heavily-guarded parliament building, the 700 members of the People's Consultative Assembly debated the political future of the unelected incumbent president, B.J. Habibie. In an extraordinary show of how much Indonesia has jettisoned its authoritarian past, Habibie was forced to sit passively while assembly members stridently criticized his stormy 16 months in office and urged the chamber to rescind his mandate by rejecting a speech he delivered Thursday on his tenure.
But while the speeches droned on, Indonesia's unfolding political transition shifted largely to the streets. Thousands of anti-Habibie demonstrators turned out in force in an apparent effort to keep pressure on the assembly and remind its members that in Indonesia's new reform era, citizens can no longer be ignored.
"There's no way the 700 people inside will escape notice of the people on the streets," said Wimar Witoelar, a political commentator and television talk show host. "As the session is going on, these [protests] are being tracked. The people inside the building have handphones and monitoring networks among their friends. This has got to have an impact."
Proponents of reform said the demonstrations were important to prevent the assembly--a special body broader than the parliament charged with electing the president and vice president--from overturning the Indonesian people's overwhelming desire for change after 32 years of dictatorial rule under former president Suharto.
"Some of them are willing to die because they know they have to escalate to get through to these 700 people in this surrealistic atmosphere inside," said Jusuf Wanandi, who heads the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Jakarta-based research organziation.
The assembly members gathered to choose Indonesia's next president, he said, "are like a conclave of cardinals or something. There is a syndrome like the Stockholm syndrome--they all get used to each other." The danger, he said, is that those inside might ignore the broad aspirations for change outside and end up reelecting Habibie despite his unpopularity.
Habibie is a longtime Suharto protege and cabinet member who used to refer to the former president as "SGS," for "Super Genius Suharto." Since becoming president in May 1998, he has moved quickly to distance himself from Suharto's government, freeing political prisoners, unshackling the media and paving the way for the country's first democratic elections for parliament in four decades.
But Habibie has never been able to shake the label of being "Suharto's man." He has been criticized for not moving aggressively enough to investigate corruption accusations against Suharto and for allowing the attorney general to drop a case against him last Monday. And he sparked new outrage this week by saying he wants to name armed forces commander Gen. Wiranto as his vice president. Protesters blame Wiranto, a former military aide to Suharto, for human rights abuses here and in East Timor.
The most popular politician in the presidential race is Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno. A third candidate in the race is Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid, a blind cleric who sometimes aligns himself with Megawati and at other times seems to want the top job for himself.
Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, won 34 percent of the vote in last June's parliamentary elections and controls about one-third of the seats in the people's assembly. But Megawati is far short of a majority and needs to build alliances with other parties to realize her ambition to reclaim her father's house. So far, she has appeared unwilling or unable to make the necessary deals to forge a working coalition.