Louise Williams, Jakarta – Indonesia's Parliament is preparing to hand President Soeharto sweeping emergency powers that would allow security forces to take "preventive measures" against opponents of the regime in order to "secure national development".
All factions of the 1,000-member People's Advisory Council have agreed to reintroduce a defunct security decree, following Mr Soeharto's statement earlier this year that freedom "is being misused by irresponsible persons".
In September, Mr Soeharto told incoming politicians that "current laws lack the power to oppose those who betray [the national ideology] Pancasila and the Constitution".
The decree on emergency powers was abandoned in 1993 because the political situation was judged as stable. But the current Parliament is planning to hand the extra-constitutional powers back following presidential elections next March, which are expected to be won unopposed by Mr Soeharto.
Indonesia has been hit by a series of riots over the past 18 months and social commentators predict that tensions will worsen next year as unemployment and inflation rise due to the economic crisis.
A spokesman for the ruling Golkar party said the proposal for emergency powers was not based on exaggerated fears. "It is an anticipative step for the future," he said. "As long as stability is under control, the decree will not be used."
But political analysts criticised the decree, saying Mr Soeharto's Government already had considerable power to use against its opponents with the existing subversion laws. These permit imprisonment without trial for one year and carry a maximum penalty of death.
One political scientist said: "The reason given by the Government for the decree is the riots over the last year or so, but the reason is thirst for power.
"It is not because the Government's power is inadequate now, but because the Government is no longer confident of its power because of the recent empowerment of sectors of society. They only have the legitimation of the elections, which were not honest and fair."
One diplomat observed: "The Soeharto Government is anticipating a very tough year next year and may read the situation as needing another club on the shelf."
He said millions of workers would not receive their annual bonuses in January because of the economic crisis. The removal of highly sensitive fuel subsidies would be likely after March, while workers would be pushing for an increase in the minimum wage as prices increased, at a time when companies could not afford to pay.
A political commentator, Mr Muhammad Hikam, said the decree would allow almost any preventive measures during a crisis, including the break-up of political parties.
"The worry is that it can be used as a tool to prevent the development of the pro-democracy movement."
The minority United Development Party has argued that the decree's revival must be accompanied by protection for human rights.