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Indonesian president names Hartono information minister

Wall Street Journal - June 9, 1997

Richard Borsuk, Jakarta – President Suharto's surprise appointment of a new information minister may herald tighter control of Indonesia's media. The abrupt replacement of long-serving Information Minister Harmoko with retiring army Chief of Staff Gen. Hartono also could provide clues about the country's political succession.

Gen. Hartono, who turns 56 years old on Tuesday, told reporters on Friday that he was surprised by the appointment announced that day, as he learned of it from journalists and not from the president. The announcement came less than nine months before the end of the cabinet's five-year term, and only eight days after Indonesia's parliamentary election.

The 58-year-old Mr. Harmoko, information minister since 1983 and chairman of Mr. Suharto's Golkar party since 1993, will remain in the cabinet as "minister for special affairs" after Gen. Hartono is sworn in Wednesday. It wasn't immediately clear what Mr. Harmoko's duties will be in the newly created post.

Many observers assumed Mr. Harmoko's standing might be enhanced by last month's election, in which Golkar won its highest percentage ever of valid votes, 74%. But it appears, instead, the election may have left the president unhappy with Mr. Harmoko. Prefacing the announcement of an "honorary discharge" for Mr. Harmoko, State Secretary Murdiono said that, in connection with the election, "it is regarded as necessary to make a change of duty." He didn't elaborate. Mr. Suharto, who turned 76 on Sunday, made no public comment on the switch.

Displeasure over media coverage

Indonesian editors and political analysts said they believe Mr. Suharto removed Mr. Harmoko because of displeasure over domestic media coverage of the election campaign. The Indonesian print media reported comprehensively on violence and other facets of the campaign, during which more than 250 people died.

An editor of a Jakarta daily said Mr. Suharto appears to believe the media was "too free" during the campaign and that Mr. Harmoko, occupied with campaigning, failed to keep it in line. "With a military man as information minister, the grip may well become tighter," the editor said.

At times, Mr. Harmoko has taken a tough line. In 1994, he closed Tempo, Indonesia's leading newsweekly, which had been outspoken about political issues, as well as two other publications. But while the closings sent a chill through the Indonesian media, the press has been lively and robust at times.

Indonesian editors speculate that several publications may get stiff warnings, or worse, once Gen. Hartono settles into his job. They also believe some newspapers may be unofficially instructed to change editors. Asked Friday whether he might close any papers, Gen. Hartono told reporters: "Please don't talk about it now. I haven't been installed yet." He said he expected to follow the military's "principles" and to continue Mr. Harmoko's programs.

It is unclear what lies ahead for Mr. Harmoko, one of Indonesia's most recognized faces as a fixture on state-produced television news. As Golkar chairman, he is the prime candidate to be named speaker of the House of Representatives later this year. Traditionally, the speaker also is chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly, a 1,000-member body that meets next March to select the president and vice president. (The assembly is comprised of the 500 House members and 500 appointees approved by Mr. Suharto.)

The shift in Mr. Harmoko's job sparked intense interest because it is the first time in 30 years that Mr. Suharto replaced a minister partway through a five-year cabinet term. In December 1995, the president dropped his trade minister, but that department was merged with the Industry Ministry.

Mr. Harmoko said he couldn't comment yet on his new duties. He thanked Mr. Suharto for trusting him with the new post and said he will carry it out based on the president's "guidance."

Gen. Hartono's future

The appointments also are likely to fuel speculation on the future of Gen. Hartono, who is widely thought to be close to Mr. Suharto's eldest daughter, Siti Hardijanti Rukmana. Analysts suggest that because he will be joining the cabinet and Mrs. Rukmana appears to have high political ambitions, Gen. Hartono may play some role in the succession.

Mr. Suharto hasn't designated a successor. It is widely believed that, if his health remains good, he will seek a seventh five-year term in March. Friday's appointment likely means Gen. Hartono has moved up on the list of possible vice presidents, one political analyst said.

Months ago, government officials and others predicted that Gen. Hartono would be retired on his birthday as army chief of staff. And it was known he would be succeeded by Lt. Gen. Wiranto, commander of the Strategic Reserve Command. But until Friday, many thought Gen. Hartono would either receive a cabinet position next year or become an ambassador.

To some observers, Friday's announcement illustrated the growing influence of Mrs. Rukmana, a deputy Golkar chairwoman who is close to her father. At a function he attended last year with her, Gen. Hartono upset many Indonesians by wearing Golkar's symbol, a yellow jacket, and openly declaring his support for the party. The military, though a vital part of Mr. Suharto's power base, traditionally has professed neutrality in elections.