Suharto safe as Indonesia edges towards collapse

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The Independent Online
EXACTLY 32 years ago this morning, Indonesia - like the Indonesia of 1998 - was in an alarming state. Like today, the economy was in turmoil and prices were rising. In Jakarta, the police and soldiers were on the streets, and thousands of students were demonstrating against the government.

After meeting his cabinet on 11 March 1966, the then President Sukarno could resist no longer: following veiled threats of a military coup, he handed over leadership to a young Javanese general named Suharto.

Thirty-two years later, Indonesia's generals, businessmen and civil servants have met to consider the future of their leadership once again. Their economy is close to collapse, and in Jakarta yesterday at least 10 people were arrested in one of dozens of protests held in cities throughout the country. But there is one big difference from the events of 30 years ago. Today, 11 March 1998, after his unanimous re-election yesterday by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), Suharto will be sworn in for his seventh consecutive term as President of Indonesia.

It is a measure of his skill that, even with his economy collapsing, Suharto is still the only credible candidate for the leadership of the world's fourth biggest nation.

Part of the explanation is obvious. The MPR is a parody of a democratic body. Six hundred of its 1,000 members are appointed directly by the government, and 400 are members of a parliament, chosen in rigged elections. Ten are members of the President's family. Suharto was the only candidate, and the MPR held no vote and no debate. At 10am yesterday, the assembly resounded with shouts of "I agree, I agree!". Thus was the matter settled for another five years.

"Suharto is the government, and he is as firmly in control now as he has ever been," a Western diplomat in Jakarta said. "Within the government he is all powerful - the machine operates at his command." When President Suharto disappeared from public view for a fortnight in December, according to diplomats, the government ceased to function.

"Insulting the president" is a serious crime, and the enforcement of this and other laws against "subversion" have prevented the development of any institutions from which alternatives to Suharto might emerge.

The media is under strong pressure to conform. The current affairs magazine D&R is being investigated by the police for defaming the President. Its crime was to put on its cover an image of Suharto as the King of Spades. When an executive of D&R was asked why it had done this, he said: "No matter how many times we turn the cards, President Suharto will still be elected." The editor could face several years in prison.

The courts are seen as colluding with the government. And Islam, Indonesia's majority religion, is divided between several organisations which President Suharto has played off against one another. Even the two legal opposition parties are virtually run by the government. When Megawati Sukarnoputri, the only other person in the country with a personal following to match Suharto's, became too popular for the President's liking, she was thrown out of the leadership of the Indonesian Democratic Party at the government's behest.

Only the armed forces have the strength to offer a potential challenge. But Suharto's control over the appointments of senior officers is absolute.

At 76, Suharto has already had heart surgery and several unexplained periods of illness. There is the spectre of civil unrest, and the question of whether the army and police can stop sporadic riots over food prices from coalescing with the political protests organised by students and intellectuals. The army may be more divided than it appears. But in the absence of a popular uprising or a military coup, Suharto may see out his next five-year term, in spite of the growing poverty and instability of Indonesia.

"At the moment the riots and protests are isolated," one foreign observer in Jakarta said. "As for the military, why would they want to take over this mess?"