Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, was a charismatic orator who held sway over the masses with his fiery rhetoric. The second president, Suharto, was a taciturn army general, an autocrat who ruled with an iron fist. And the third, B. J. Habibie, was a frenetic engineer, whose brief but tumultuous tenure was marked by his marathon talk fests.

If there is any way to characterize the two-month tenure of President Abdurrahman Wahid, it would be "government by improvisation." Or, better, by extemporization.

Wahid, the nearly blind Muslim cleric known as "Gus Dur," has cultivated a casual, open air at the once-stuffy presidential palace. Well-wishers, often Muslim scholars, or ulamas, from his native East Java, come and go at all hours, often without official appointments. Routine government functions, like swearing-in ceremonies, can evolve into impromptu news conferences. And Wahid gladly responds to almost any query.

Sometimes the president's statements amount to official policy--but sometimes not. Sometimes he is given to personal musings on important issues. Sometimes he states his personal opinion, then changes tack and says the opposite the next day. And through all the verbiage, analysts--and sometimes his own cabinet ministers--are often left bewildered as to what the president really means.

The best analogy one cabinet minister could find for Wahid's governing style is the becak, the ubiquitous orange three-wheeled pedicab that plies Jakarta streets.

When you are driving in traffic behind a becak, said Juwono Sudarsono, the defense minister, "you don't know whether it's going to go left or right or stop. [Wahid] makes the point, 'It doesn't matter what I say or do, it's the general direction that matters.' "

So far, most Indonesians seem supportive of Wahid, despite the makeshift governing style that has led to some confusion over policies. "I think there's still a very strong sense of giving him the benefit of the doubt, despite his eccentric style," Juwono said in a recent interview.

Wahid's support comes partly from a kind of general national fatigue. Indonesia has been on an emotional roller coaster for two years, since the collapse of the currency, the rupiah, triggered an economic meltdown and a political revolt that ousted Suharto's regime.

The country has shed its authoritarian past, and is only now learning to embrace its new democracy. Long pent-up ethnic tensions have boiled to the surface, with communal violence in the Spice Islands claiming dozens more lives recently. And the military, once the most powerful institution in the country, is struggling to find a new role as it battles allegations and investigations of human rights abuses.

East Timor has become independent, an emotionally wrenching event in a country that for 24 years was force-fed the notion that the region was Indonesia's "27th province." And now the restive province of Aceh is threatening to follow suit, as the separatist Free Aceh Movement has grown in the wake of East Timor's decision to break free.

It is perhaps the Aceh question more than any other that will put Wahid's free-flowing leadership style to the test in the coming weeks. There has been a general lull in fighting during the current Muslim fasting month, Ramadan. But when Ramadan ends the second week in January, if the armed forces have their way a military offensive will be launched against Aceh's separatist rebels to prevent what the army perceives as growing anarchy in the province.

The military wants Wahid to declare an emergency in Aceh to justify a crackdown on the guerrillas. Wahid, however, has repeatedly ruled out the need for such a step, putting the civilian president on a collision course with his armed forces.

"We will wait until after Ramadan, and then we would like to move," said Maj. Gen. Sudrajat, the armed forces spokesman, in a recent interview. "The situation [in Aceh] is getting worse and worse. We have to do something." He said the armed forces first want Wahid to declare the Free Aceh Movement "a separatist and invalid organization. . . . We need a political umbrella" for military action.

Wahid, concerned about human rights abuses, is unlikely to give the military that kind of blanket authority for a crackdown. "This is the dilemma," Sudrajat said. "We have to push him."

Sudrajat said the question of how to handle the Aceh rebels shows the conflict between Wahid's past as an activist and head of a large Muslim organization and his new role as president. "Gus Dur in June and Gus Dur now are different," he said. "As an activist, you can say anything you want. But not as president. On imposing a state of emergency, Gus Dur is still like an activist. In his mind, a state of emergency means oppressing civilians. To us, state of emergency means state authority making everything in Aceh become normal."

Even if Wahid resisted giving the military broad authority in Aceh, Sudrajat said the armed forces would not intervene to topple the government. "That is what we don't want to happen," he said. "But if there is no other way to preserve the constitution, our modality would not be by coup, in taking over the government. Our modality would be to go to the parliament, and talk to the people." He added, "There won't be a formal coup."

Another run-in between Wahid and the armed forces is likely to come over the issue of whether top military commanders should face formal charges over allegations of past human rights abuses in East Timor and Aceh. The former armed forces commander, Gen. Wiranto, is seen as particularly vulnerable and has hired a prominent Jakarta defense lawyer to help him fend off a probe by a special investigative panel. But Wiranto also holds a top cabinet post--coordinating minister for political affairs and security--and has taken a dominant role in running the new government, chairing cabinet meetings and setting the agenda.

With all the palace machinations and the talk of barracks intrigue, Indonesia under Wahid in many ways resembles the early days of President Corazon Aquino's government in the Philippines, when the goodwill of the 1986 "people power" revolution dissipated in a series of mutinies and coup attempts, labor unrest, an upsurge in violence by Communist rebels and Muslim secessionists and a deepening public pessimism.

Indonesia resembles the Philippines of a decade ago in another way--the huge public expectation of change that will be difficult for the new reform-minded government to meet.

Wahid's "problem now is that expectations are so high," said one Western diplomat.

"I think in the year 2000, people will be screaming," said Sudrajat, the armed forces spokesman. "People are now hungry for jobs. And they really expect our government to overcome the situation."

Juwono, the defense minister, said: "The parallel might be with the late Julius Nyerere [of Tanzania], or Vaclav Havel. And maybe also Nelson Mandela. At a certain level, you have this gravitas of moral authority and charisma. But you have [to have] some degree of economic deliverance."