Technophile stumbles into the limelight

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The Independent Online
FOR A FEW fleeting seconds, after the announcement of his new cabinet last Friday, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie stood at the lectern without a clue what to do next. A journalist shouted a question. The new president looked blankly around him, and finally a uniformed aide stepped up and lead him away.

More than once during his three public appearances since President Suharto's resignation last week, BJ Habibie has looked as if he couldn't quite believe what was going on. Much of Indonesia, and the rest of the world, feels the same. In many ways, Mr Habibie is the worst possible candidate for the job, a man without domestic support at home and with a positively bad reputation among foreign investors.

When Suharto first hinted that the 61-year- old minister for technology would be his next vice-president, the rupiah sank to a record low. In his penultimate speech on Tuesday, as he fought for his political life, Suharto presented a persuasive argument for retaining him as president: "If I step down and the vice-president takes over, will that end the crisis?"

BJ Habibie is a brilliant and mercurial character, but these are the last things Indonesia needs right now. As a president committed to erasing nepotism and corruption, it is ironic that he acquired the job through personal favour.

He has been Suharto's protege since he was a teenager. After the death of Habibie's father, Suharto helped pay the boy's school fees. He went on to study aeronautical engineering in Germany, where he excelled. He became a vice-president of the aircraft manufacturer Messerschmitt, and was summoned back to Indonesia by Suharto. Twenty years ago, he became technology minister.

From Germany, Mr Habibie brought with him a vision - the leapfrog theory of development. Rather as South Korea thrust itself from developing-country status by a forced march to industrialisation, so he sought to do the same with Indonesia - not through steel mills and shipyards, but through high technology and, in particular, aircraft. Indulged by his president, Habibie tried to create South-east Asia's first aerospace industry, spearheaded by the N250 jet. The project cost Indonesia millions of dollars, but it is not known whether a single one has been sold abroad for cash, rather than for barter. This zeal for high-spending projects at the expense of grassroots development is the mainstay of what has become known as Habibienomics, and represents the international financial community's biggest concern about him.

In 1994 he purchased the entire East German navy for the bargain price of $12m (pounds 8m). The armed forces later discovered $1.2bn of repairs were needed. Many have never forgiven him.

The crucial issues are why he got the presidency, and whose man he is: his own, Suharto's, or the armed forces commander, General Wiranto's. Or is he the last joke of a president who could never believe he would leave office?

"He got the job because he was there," says one Western diplomat. "He's a piece of debris left over from the collapse of Suharto."