First cracks in Suharto's iron rule

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The Independent Online
For 30 years he has ruled the world's fourth biggest country unchallenged. This weekend, with his economy in deep crisis and his authority unravelling, President Suharto of Indonesia faced unprecedented calls to quit, as Richard Lloyd Parry reports.

The unthinkable became increasingly possible over the weekend, as President Suharto of Indonesia came under further pressure to step down from the popular opposition leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

In a passionate speech at her home on the outskirts of Jakarta, Ms Megawati, the daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno, excoriated those who had allowed the economic crisis to develop and put herself forward as a potential candidate.

"I want to take this opportunity to call on the people of Indonesia to demand Suharto is not renominated for president for a seventh term of office," she told thousands of supporters. "I hereby take this opportunity to declare my intention to become the leader of our nation and our people, if this is indeed the consensus of the people."

In the medium term at least, Mrs Megawati has little chance of replacing Suharto, but her statement has unprecedented symbolic importance in a country where "insulting" the President is a serious criminal offence. Since deposing Sukarno amid a period of anti-Communist massacres during the 1960s, Suharto and his followers have controlled the army, parliament and the media, and public calls for his replacement have until now been virtually unthinkable. But in the last few days, they have proliferated, as the plunging value of the Indonesian rupiah and apparent unwillingness of the government to reform itself have provoked panic buying of food.

This has driven up the cost of rice, which suppliers have been forced to import after a drought. Jakarta was relatively calm yesterday after an appeal for order by the government, and a warning by military leaders that they are prepared to act, if necessary, to "maintain public order".

Despite the prevailing atmosphere of censorship, national media carried prominent reports of Mrs Megawati's speech, and the country's biggest English-language newspaper, the Jakarta Post has run front page stories of prominent Indonesians calling for the President to step down. Since officially taking the title in 1967, Suharto has been elected seven times by an assembly dominated by hand-picked cronies, which will next meet in March. Until recently, it was assumed that his re-election was a mere formality, but that certainty has evaporated over the weekend.

Suharto is blamed for putting the interests of the national economy behind that of his sons and daughters, several of whom are among Indonesia's richest business people. As Ms Megawati said in her weekend speech: "The bitter fact that our nation now projects the image of a chronic cronyist disease, shunned by international investors who have lost all confidence in Indonesia, reflects our real condition - profoundly unhealthy."