Habibie promises early elections

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The Independent Online
HOURS after the release of two political prisoners, President BJ Habibie of Indonesia made a personal visit to the scenes of this month's riots in another attempt to boost the credibility of his young government.

In a gesture that would have been inconceivable under the former president, Mr Suharto, Mr Habibie broadcast messages of encouragement through a megaphone and debated with local people whose shops and businesses were destroyed in two days of vicious looting.

Thousands of local people waved at the President's bus as it drove through the Chinatown district where the worst destruction occurred. "I came here to meet you and express my sincere sympathy," he said.

Earlier, Mr Habibie told a group of pro-democracy campaigners that he would hold new elections "as soon as possible".

"Our target [for holding elections] is between six and twelve months," said Professor Sudjana Sapiie of the Banding Institute of Technology"[The President] asked if we can go any faster and we said it was very unlikely."

Last Monday, Mr Habibie told his first cabinet meeting that he would revise the election laws which control the political parties and vet their candidates. Early yesterday, former member of parliament Sri Bintang Pamungkas and trade union leader Muchtar Pakpahan, walked out of Cipinang Jail in Jakarta where they had been held for criticising Mr Suharto.

But many Indonesians remain sceptical of the new program, which may have as much to do with the need to win over the International Monetary Fund, which has withheld a $10bn (pounds 6.25bn) loan instalment because of the riots, as with a genuinely democratic spirit. "We need a firm time frame for general elections," said Emil Salim, a former minister who is running for president.

Yesterday, Hubert Neiss, the IMF's chief official in charge of Asia, arrived in Jakarta to discuss the future of the $43bn (pounds 27bn) loan. "We have to recognise that the economic measures will only work if there is also political stability," he said.