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Round two: Suharto's comeback?

Digest 66 - June 22, 1998

Gerry van Klinken – Mr Suharto's daughter Tutut told a journalist recently that after resigning as president her father was now resting at home. "If there are no visitors, he reads the newspaper or watches television with his grandchildren", she said. [optional: His lawyer Mr Aziz Balhmar says: "He now just wants to grow close to God".] Suharto an old pensioner who has left politics behind? Pull the other leg, many Indonesian newspapers are saying.

During 32 years in power, Mr Suharto built a web of elite connections whose strands all ran towards where he sat, spider-like, in the middle. He resigned from the presidency on 21 May. He did not resign from the web. Nor did he resign from a key position in the ruling party Golkar. Reports say that, apart from minding his grandchildren, he has visited armed forces headquarters several times since his resignation.

In a sense, all those who took over from Suharto are the president's men. But now that he is gone, some feel the loss more acutely than others. Curiously, armed forces commander General Wiranto is beginning to look like the conservative, while President Habibie looks like the reformer.

Mr Habibie is meeting all kinds of people and frantically making concessions in order to build a constituency of his own, and not without success. Wiranto, meanwhile, appears anxious to slow the pace of change. He is also acting on his promise to protect Mr Suharto from popular demands for an accounting.

Some who have talked with army officers recently say some are growling about "traitors", by whom they mean all those who conspired to bring down Suharto.

They dislike the concessions Habibie has made - the release of political prisoners, the trial of policemen for shooting some students, the easing of labour and press restrictions, the proliferation of political parties, the Islamic demands for justice over the 1984 army massacre at Tanjung Priok. It is not yet clear what they think of Habibie's latest offer on East Timor.

An editorial in Media Indonesia, part-owned by Mr Suharto's son Bambang, on 19 June expressed the hope that Habibie's government was "at last" realising that making allies with "the rabble of the streets" would get the country nowhere.

A conservative backlash is not just talk. An emerging defensive strategy is creating a de facto alliance between Suharto and the armed forces. It aims, at the very least, to take the heat off both parties for abuses committed during the Suharto era.

After Lt-Gen Prabowo, Mr Suharto's son-in-law, accepted the order to relinquish active command of troops and shift to the staff college, moves to name him over the shooting of students at the Trisakti University appear to have been quietly dropped.

Mysterious, well-made banners appeared on Jakarta streets on Friday [19 June] warning people to stop criticising Suharto or risk bloodshed.

Meanwhile reformer Amien Rais has been met with counter-demonstrations in several country towns that are widely suspected of being orchestrated by the military.

On Wednesday [17 June], Attorney General Soedjono was suddenly replaced by a soldier on active service, Maj-Gen Mohammed Ghalib. Most newspapers interpreted the replacement as a conservative move. Soedjono had been vigorous in pursuit of the Suharto family wealth. He also promoted the release of more political prisoners, and had proposed that the police, in Indonesia part of the armed forces, should regain their independence. Ghalib has already dampened expectations of speedy action on Suharto's wealth.

That is not all. Suharto loyalists have headed an internal struggle within the state political party Golkar that may well see the removal from its chair of Harmoko, among the first within government to move against Suharto on 18 May. Not only does Suharto remain chairman of Golkar's Guidance Council, his daughter Tutut and son Bambang are actively exercising the top executive positions they hold in the party.

Not that Suharto wants to be reelected as president. General Wiranto has repeatedly denied he would back a Suharto return to the palace. But the army seems to be backing Suharto's determination to kill off the increasingly voluble public condemnation of the former president.

A special session of the People's Assembly (MPR) coming up in December could turn nasty for Mr Suharto if it demands an accounting of his time in power. In the absence of fresh elections, most Assembly delegates will be from Golkar. So the way to control the People's Assembly is to control Golkar.

For a while it looked as if Reformasi would sweep all before it. Now the old guard is striking back. They probably will be unable to restore the New Order in all its rigidity. Their agenda is more limited: damage control rather than total victory. In any case, it is difficult to imagine how they can undo the liberalisation of recent weeks without shedding more blood than anyone cares to stomach. Habibie's Islamic support alone may already be too large to trifle with. However, political struggle has obviously re-emerged in Jakarta.