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Perilous times

Asiaweek - December 11, 1998

The riots that engulfed jakarta last week have spent their malevolent force, at least for the time being. But few people realistically believe that Indonesia will not be hit by other upheavals as the new year opens. To think that President B. J. Habibie can control his country's rapidly diverging political forces and hold things together until the promised general election next May (or June, or July) would require much stronger and more focused leadership than he has provided so far. Trust in the Habibie government, never very high, is rapidly eroding. The best, perhaps the only, way now to restore vital confidence in the center, hold the far-flung nation together and begin rebuilding the shattered economy is through a credible election. And the sooner the better.

Habibie's administration was always a transitional one. That was implicit in the promise he made earlier to have the People's Consultative Assembly hold a new presidential election by December 1999 at the latest, hardly halfway through the constitutional term of office he inherited after Suharto stepped down. Otherwise, the president would simply have served out the term, which does not expire until 2003. The trouble is that once in office, Habibie and the people around him have not always acted as though their hold on power is only temporary. They have been using state authority to advance or protect their own interests. This is despite the fact that the only real mandate they ever received, such as it is, came from the discredited Suharto.

Indeed, the Habibie government sometimes behaves as though it has a genuine mandate. It speeds ahead with issues it is interested in, but goes slow on what appear to be genuine popular demands: the investigation of Suharto, reduction of military influence in government and bringing to justice the perpetrators of violence during traumatic riots last May. With some fanfare, Jakarta spoke of giving limited autonomy to East Timor, opening an investigation into the misdeeds of Suharto and his family, and initiating programs to help spread wealth around more equitably. Yet it all has a hollow feeling. More troops pour into East Timor, students are shot on the streets and political opponents are terrorized. The promised probes into the abuses of power and favoritism of the Suharto era seem to go nowhere.

In fact, Habibie shows every sign of wanting to dig in. There are also indications that some in his inner circle are pressing for a state aligned more toward Islam than in the past. The president does not always agree with those who seem to be working overtime to bend the bureaucracy, the Consultative Assembly and the government's Golkar party to their idea of "Islamic socialism." But he does not seem powerful enough to hold a clear line. If Islamic socialism is what Indonesians truly want, that would be fine. But so far, they have not been asked. And the maneuverings by the president's people are sparking suspicion, anger and unrest.

It is time the Habibie government started acting like what it really is – a transitional regime, whose main purpose is to hold things together until another one with a real mandate can be chosen. Ideally, Habibie would turn power over to a neutral, unambitious and respected caretaker, someone like Thailand's former prime minister Anand Panyarachun. But it would be hard to find such a figure in Jakarta's poisonous atmosphere of intrigue. In any case, no constitutional means exists to appoint one. So the election will have to be carried out with Habibie as head of government. His energies should properly – and exclusively – be focused on making that poll as fair and as credible as possible.

Obstacles exist under the 1945 Constitution to determining this mandate. As the charter stands, people vote only for parliament, which makes up just one part of the assembly that elects the president. To credibly pick the head of state, the number of appointed members (virtually all Suharto supporters) and seats reserved for the military in the electoral college should be reduced or even eliminated altogether. This week, parliament is set to debate a new election law, but it looks likely to retain the old system of voting in parties, not candidates. That helps perpetuate the power of the established political parties, especially Suharto's ruling vehicle, Golkar. It would be better if individual members were elected from their districts on their own merits. The parties now in authority, it seems, want the polls conducted using the same flawed system that put them into power in the first place.

A general election would give Indonesia a central project on which to concentrate its restive energies. Certain elements that think they are getting the kind of nation they want now by hitching their political fortunes to Habibie may not welcome a quick election, but their motives should be ignored. A credible poll would provide a legitimate, reformist government capable of taking the tough measures needed to stabilize Indonesia and get its economy growing again. The longer Habibie stays nominally in charge without a mandate, the closer the country will edge toward chaos. For too long, the government has decided what is good for the people. Now it is time for the people to decide what government is good for them.