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Suharto makes sure of his next election victory

PRESIDENT Suharto of Indonesia yesterday convened an assembly of tame supporters to re-elect him for his seventh consecutive term and with even greater powers than before. Despite presiding over the country's worst economic crisis for 40 years, President Suharto is certain of being elected for another five-year term by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) which meets in the capital Jakarta until the middle of next week.

Almost all the members have been chosen or approved by him, decision- making is by "consensus" rather than by voting and, in any case, he is the sole candidate. The only person to have declared her willingness to stand against him, the opposition figure, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was ousted from parliament last year and is therefore disqualified from standing.

The assembly meets at a time of exceptional unease in Indonesia, which has suffered in the last seven months from an intensifying series of catastrophes - a currency crisis which has reduced the value of the rupiah by 70 per cent, forest fires, smog, drought, soaring inflation, mass lay-offs, aircraft crashes, food riots and the looting of Chinese shops.

If the election of the 76-year-old Mr Suharto, and his controversial choice as vice-president, the technology minister, B J Habibie, is not in doubt, the more pressing question is whether the MPR can carry out its ritualistic tasks without triggering popular opposition on the streets of Jakarta.

A Manila newspaper reported a conversation between President Suharto and the Philippines foreign minister in which the President expressed fears of a "revolution" if the price of rice rose further. Indonesia's South-East Asian neighbours are already said to be making plans for the possible exodus of Indonesian refugees if the food situation continues to decline.

Today, the former United States vice-president, Walter Mondale, will arrive in Jakarta as President Bill Clinton's personal envoy to Mr Suharto in an attempt to encourage political and economic reform.

Public demonstrations have been banned for the duration of the MPR's deliberations, which is likely to grant the President sweeping emergency powers. Troops and personnel carriers are stationed outside the parliament building, and some 35,000 troops and police have been mobilised.

Also in question is the future of the $43bn (pounds 27bn) rescue package put together by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to stabilise the crippled economy. Ever since it was negotiated last year, Mr Suharto has appeared reluctant to implement its measures, which are designed to increase competitiveness in a market hitherto dominated by a few rich businessmen, many of them friends or relatives of the President.

"Despite the fact that we already have started to carry out clear and fundamental reforms and a restructuring program, there are no signs yet that the situation has improved," the Indonesian leader said in his televised speech to the MPR yesterday. "On the contrary, the people's life is becoming more difficult."

His latest idea, for a currency board which would peg the value of the rupiah to that of the US dollar, provoked deep unease at the IMF which threatened to suspend its aid if the plan was put into action. Yesterday, President Suharto announced a new plan, called "IMF plus" regarded by him and his advisers as "more appropriate" to Indonesia's problems, but unlikely to be welcomed by the international community. "If Suharto does not carry out the necessary reforms and stick to the plan," a US official told reporters last on Friday, "we will line up very strongly against the delivery of the next tranche."