Nusron Wahid has traveled a long way since the student uprising of 1998, only to return to the gates of parliament where he helped topple President Suharto after more than three decades of dictatorial rule.
Wahid, 31, a former campus leader, is about to take his seat as a newly elected legislator. But, disillusioned with the political forces that sprang from the reform movement he once championed, Wahid now represents Suharto's own Golkar party and is campaigning for Suharto's military chief to be the country's next president.
Wahid reflects a generation of student activists who, as reformers, became heroes to their countrymen and who now embody public disappointment in the five-year democratic experiment that followed Suharto's ouster.
President Megawati Sukarnoputri, buoyed to the top of Indonesian politics as a victim of Suharto's repression, now trails badly in the polls. Analysts said she may not even win enough votes to make it past the first round of voting on July 5.
Both of Megawati's main challengers are former generals under Suharto, underscoring the public yearning for a strong figure to revive the flagging economy and crush corruption. The front-runner, Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was commander of the Jakarta garrison and then the military's chief political policymaker. The Golkar nominee, Gen. Wiranto, was commander in chief.
Wahid, short and stocky with wide eyes and a small, puckered mouth, entered the student struggle in 1996 on Megawati's behalf. Suharto had ousted Megawati as the leader of an opposition party and installed his own lackeys, backed by the military and police.
As pro-democracy demonstrators gathered outside Megawati's former headquarters in central Jakarta, Wahid said, he led a group of students from the University of Indonesia into the streets. The security forces moved against the protesters, killing five people and leaving 23 others missing.
Two years later, on a storied day in May 1998, amid the crescendo of the pro-democracy movement, Wahid shepherded 18 buses filled with students to the parliament grounds. They pushed through the iron gates of parliament, he recalled, demanding that Suharto resign and vowing to camp out until he did.
On the fourth day, Suharto conceded.
"I was so happy that I was yelling," Wahid recalled.
In the following years, Wahid became national chairman of a Muslim student organization, demanding that Golkar party officials be brought to court for their misdeeds.
But by two years ago, Wahid said, he had concluded that the new parties, including Megawati's, were little more than fan clubs for egotistical politicians. He switched sides, deciding that Indonesia's best hope lay with Golkar's established machinery. Then Golkar leaders approached Wahid about running for parliament from his home district on Indonesia's main island of Java.
His family was taken aback. His father, a rice and corn farmer, had been arrested twice under Suharto for political activities. "Are you crazy?" he recalled a family friend asking, pulling him aside during his campaign. "Don't you remember how badly your father and I were beaten during Suharto?" The man parted his hair, baring a scar.
Wahid was elected this spring, and Golkar received the largest share of seats in parliament.
"Indonesians are tired. They're confused," he said. "Before, they put their faith in elite politicians, but they don't have faith in them anymore. Indonesians have lost hope in reform."
In April, the Golkar party tapped Wiranto -- who has been indicted by a U.N.-supported tribunal for crimes against humanity during Indonesia's occupation of East Timor -- as its presidential candidate. Wahid threw his head back as he considered the notion: "I would never have imagined that I'd be supporting General Wiranto."
'Why Waste My Time?'
While Wahid crossed the lines to the party of Suharto, another former activist, Yaswin Iben Shina, abandoned politics. Like many other Indonesians, he turned his attention to making a living.
Iben Shina grew up on the same tree-lined street in central Jakarta that Suharto and his clan called home. When the presidential motorcade would pull up, Iben Shina, the son of a small-time Muslim cleric, stood at attention.
But as a teenager, he noticed that the sons of members of Suharto's inner circle drove to school in BMWs and took expensive weekend jaunts to Singapore. By the time he entered the University of Indonesia, he had become embittered by the corruption and hypocrisy of the Suharto regime.
Iben Shina moved up the ranks of student government, ultimately becoming the president of about 3,000 literature students.
In 1997, the Indonesian economy collapsed amid the financial crisis sweeping Asia. But Indonesians refrained from criticizing Suharto for the crash, cowed by the prospect of arrest. A group of about 1,000 activists, with Iben Shina as field organizer, decided to shatter the silence in February 1998 and called a pivotal news conference to demand Suharto's resignation.
"Indonesia's new generation had to have its own voice and not just repeat the lies Suharto kept telling us," recounted Iben Shina, 31. "Someone had to take a risk. We only took Indonesia to the gates of reform. We told the people, 'Now you don't have to fear. You can do it yourself.' "
Iben Shina dropped out of politics soon after Suharto stepped down, disgusted with the country's leaders. He focused on his career as a copywriter.
He said he will not vote in the July election: "No! What for? Why waste my time? I'll stay home, sleep, talk to my girlfriend. It's much better than voting."
'Best of Bad Choices'
Ahmad Wakil Kamal resolved just last month to reenter politics, although he also despairs that little will come from the presidential contest.
When Kamal arrived at Islamic University in Jakarta from the dusty island of Madura in 1993, he quickly lived up to his reputation as a Madurese: tough, brave and bull-headed. Within a month, the solidly built, broad-shouldered law student was in the streets protesting a government proposal for a lottery. Many more demonstrations followed.
"I participated in hundreds of protests, and I don't know how many times the police and military beat me up," said Kamal, 32, crinkling the corners of his eyes as he laughed.
As the national leader of Indonesia's law students, he said, he helped organize the 1998 demonstrations campus by campus. He led at least 3,000 students to the parliament and watched with amazement as Suharto resigned.
"I was happy, but I was also surprised. I never imagined Suharto would step down so fast," Kamal said, dramatically placing his hands over his heart. "One reason the reform movement has failed is that we never had a chance to discuss what would come after Suharto."
Politicians hijacked the pro-democracy movement, he lamented, and the student movement fractured into rival camps.
"I have to admit that reform died young," he said. "Indonesians don't believe in reform anymore. All they see is prices going up and life getting more difficult. It's very hard for them to earn money."
Kamal turned his back on politics, completed his studies and in 1999 began practicing law, eventually opening his own firm, litigating divorce cases and corporate disputes.
He had planned to sit out the July election. But last month, a top aide to Yudhoyono, the former Suharto general and presidential front-runner, asked him to join the campaign. Kamal met with the candidate at a five-star hotel. Unwilling to back Megawati because of her lackluster performance and unable to support Wiranto because of human rights concerns, Kamal signed on with Yudhoyono, brushing off old political ties to organize campaign rallies.
"The decision was very hard for me," Kamal said, recalling his drubbings at the hands of the military. "He is the best of bad choices."
Special correspondent Noor Huda Ismail contributed to this report.