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Suharto returns to army roots

DIGEST No. 41 (Indonesian news with comment) - September 13, 1997

The People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) in March next year will be entirely predictable. The president may have made his peace with the armed forces and thus expect a smooth ride. However, as the crucial MPR session approaches, when Suharto will be appointed president for probably the last time, nothing is left to chance.

On 9 August, President Suharto asked a meeting of all 500 members of the new parliament (to form half the MPR) to 'consider' reinvigorating his emergency powers. Although he has never explicitly invoked them, MPR decisions to grant the president emergency powers have been a regular feature of its five-yearly meeting since 1971. The model for the special powers is the letter the ailing President Sukarno gave to General Suharto on 11 March 1966.

The 1993 MPR session did not mention them, leading some to think the New Order's habit of resorting to extrajudicial, emergency rule was maturing into more rule-based conduct. But the 9 August request, in which Suharto spoke for two hours without a drink of water about his role in saving the nation at crucial times from 1945 onwards, is a reminder that little has changed. Commentators assumed the president wants the powers this time to ensure no one takes the initiative of chosing a successor out of his own hands.

The MPR consists of 1000 members. The 500 non-parliamentary members are appointed by the government, and are now mostly known. Forum Keadilan comments in its current edition on the overwhelming preponderance of bureaucrats and their spouses and children.

The most important body within the MPR is the Working Committee (Badan Pekerja). Several of the men mooted as possible vice-presidential and hence presidential candidates are on this committee: Information Minister Gen Hartono, Assistant for Abri Social and Political Affairs Maj-Gen Bambang Yudhoyono, Army Chief of Staff Gen Wiranto, and Housing Minister Akbar Tandjung. Observers note that by putting these rivals together in one place they will each stop the other from making a premature move. Wiranto will keep Abri factions in line, while Hartono will do the same for Golkar.

There are certainly plenty of factions within Golkar. Insiders acknowledge there are groups loyal to chairman Harmoko, to Hartono, to Habibie and to Suharto's daughter Tutut. Some of this is cast as conflict between the military and 'civilian' streams within Golkar.

The public got a glimpse of Golkar factionalism in August when the Golkar delegation in Irian Jaya's provincial assembly was told by superiors in Jakarta to boycott the installation of a military officer as assembly chairman. And again when Golkar member from North Sumatra Marcos Lubis openly said in a parliamentary commission last week that Harmoko was not fit to lead the MPR session and that he preferred Syarwan Hamid. Indeed the competition between Golkar chairman Harmoko and former Abri Chief of Social and Political Affairs LtGen Syarwan Hamid to chair the session remains intense.

However, most observers dismissed the Golkar factionalism as normal, driven more by personal fear or ambition than solid bloc-based lobbying. It is unlikely to rock the national boat. Beyond its main task of winning elections, Golkar in any case lacks independent clout.

Given Suharto's vigorous control over senior officer appointments in recent years, factions within Abri are more difficult to discern. Observers have long distinguished 'Green', Islamic, pro-Suharto officers from 'Red-and-White', secular anti-Suharto officers. But this distinction now appears less useful.

More interesting than the question of rebellion within the ranks could be to ask why the presumed factional leaders are making so little use of the abundant ammunition available to them.

The crisis sparked by the collapse of Southeast Asia's currencies could hardly have come at a worse time for Suharto. It has put severe pressure on government reserves and led to inevitable belt-tightening. One would expect the exercise of 'rescheduling' non-urgent projects to be a wonderful opportunity for opponents to create a scene about the economic damage created by Suharto's nepotism.

The ammunition is there - son Tommy Suharto's Timor 'national car' has been exempted from rescheduling, as has (so far) daughter Titiek's Malaysia-Indonesia bridge. Neither obviously benefit the common people. In the face of the nation's financial difficulties, one of six large companies given tax holidays recently is owned by the Suharto family (Kiani pulp). Yet criticism of these measures has been less than determined.

Some observers, Arbi Sanit among them, have speculated that the reason could be somewhat as follows. Suharto has abandoned his attempt to counterveil dissident Abri opinion (Benny Murdani) with an appeal to Islam led by Habibie. ICMI, the vehicle for this appeal and chaired by Habibie, has been allowed to wither. Instead, Suharto has made a deal with senior (Red-and-White) Abri figures, possibly involving a guarantee that Abri will determine the next presidency, in exchange for Abri protection of the Suharto family. This would mean that, unlike its vigorous leaking of anti-Suharto material in the early 1990s, Abri has lost interest in coming down on Suharto and now regards him as an ally, not to be criticised.

The loser in this scenario is Habibie. Deputy governor of the government think tank Lemhanas, Juwono Sudarsono, appeared to confirm this when he said recently that the next president would be once more from Abri. The statement triggered a media debate about the relative merits of Abri versus 'civilian' (read: Habibie) leadership. Some thought Juwono was asked to float this trial balloon precisely to evince a polemic and identify Habibie supporters. Other than Habibie himself, however, few protested strongly.

If this speculation is correct, then Suharto has achieved what Sukarno could not: continuity even after his departure from the palace, minus serious upheaval within the elite, and minus concessions to demands for democracy.

[Gerry van Klinken, editor, Inside Indonesia magazine.]