For more than three decades, Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly has been largely a rubber stamp, ratifying the appointment of presidents already in place. Now, as the 700-member chamber meets for its first session in Indonesia's new era of democratic reform, no one--including the members themselves--has a clue who Indonesia's next president will be.
And the election is just 48 hours away.
The incumbent, President B.J. Habibie, suffered a setback today when the country's military commander, Gen. Wiranto, turned down a request to become his vice presidential running mate. But Habibie made it clear he is in the race to stay despite Wiranto's decision, huge daily demonstrations against his rule and sharp criticism from assembly members.
"I hope to continue the struggle until the last minute," an emotional Habibie told soldiers and security personnel at a ceremony. "I don't want to say goodbye. I don't want to bid farewell."
Trying to oust Habibie is the widely popular but politically inexperienced opposition leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's founding father, Sukarno. Her supporters staged another of their daily demonstrations today in Jakarta's central business district, turning a traffic circle into a sea of red--her trademark color--and warning that unless she is elected, diehard followers will stage what they call a "revolution."
Megawati's "red army," as it is known, runs the spectrum of age and income. "I came here to sympathize with her supporters," said Adung, a retired bank employee who, at 75, was one of the oldest people who turned out for the Megawati rally. He said he supports Megawati because of her famous father.
At the opposite end of the age divide, and holding up one side of a banner declaring "Megawati or Revolution," was 17-year-old Taufik Karuhman, a high school student. He knows nothing about Sukarno, he said, but supports Megawati because "she is well-educated. And she's famous."
The third declared candidate, Abdurrahman Wahid, or "Gus Dur," is a blind cleric who leads Indonesia's--and the world's--largest Muslim organization. Wahid is an erstwhile Megawati ally, and he had pledged to support her during campaigning for last June's parliamentary elections, which Megawati's party won.
Wahid's candidacy is being pushed by a Muslim group in the 700-member assembly that wants to see Habibie removed but does not think Megawati is capable of handling the job. Wahid's main proponent is the speaker of the assembly, Amien Rais, another Muslim cleric and intellectual, who has said Megawati still has time to regain her lost momentum if she begins to reach out to other faction leaders.
"It's very unfortunate," Rais was quoted today as saying in an interview. "If Megawati reached out from the beginning, she would have been far ahead by now. What she has to do is communicate with other leaders."
The three-way race has led to confusion, with analysts divided over whether Wahid will take more votes away from Megawati or Habibie. Also, rules for the election--whether there will be a run-off, whether the ballot will be secret--still have not been worked out.
A key test for Habibie will come Tuesday, when the assembly votes on whether to accept or reject a speech he delivered Thursday defending his 16-month tenure. A rejection of the speech does not mean Habibie is finished; given his remarks today, it is likely he will stay in the race and fight to the end. But the vote on the speech is seen as the first test of strength in the new assembly, and opposition parties--led by Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle--are hoping for a vote to reject the speech.
CAPTION: Indonesian President B.J. Habibie suffered a major setback when the country's top military commander, Gen. Wiranto, rejected an offer to become his vice presidential running mate.