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What Next? Indonesia's Uncertain Future

Indonesia, which recently celebrated its 52nd anniversary, is the fourth largest nation in the world. Its leader, President Suharto, has ruled Indonesia since 1968, elected every five years in contests rife with fraud, bribery, vote-buying, and outright thuggery. His political party, Golkar, won 74% of the votes in the general election last May, after disallowing the most popular opposition politician from the race.

But Suharto is 76 years old, and although it looks likely he will run for another five-year term in the 1998 elections, the world is starting to get nervous about the future of Indonesia. The Economist magazine published an 18 page survey on Indonesia titled "Suharto's end-game" (July 26th 1997), in which it named several possible candidates for succeeding Suharto. Among those featured as leading candidates were Suharto's oldest daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana (nicknamed "Tutut"), and Bucharuddin Jusuf Habibie, the long-time Minister of Research and Technology, and current Vice President Try Sutrisno.

However, each of these candidates is seriously flawed. Tutut is a popular figure nowhere but her own mind, and perhaps that of her father. The First Family has been accused of wholesale corruption and nepotism, and these accusations have tarnished her image immeasurably. Are the accusations true? It's difficult to judge what is legal and not when control of the business climate largely rests in the hands of Suharto. However, his six children and their spouses control companies in a wide array of industry: electricity, toll roads, banking, food, telecoms, newspapers, shipping, and many others. Although ethnic Chinese businessmen control over three-quarters of Indonesia's 140 largest companies, the Suharto family rules over most of the rest. As an example, the government decided to create a "national car," and the company given exclusive rights to produce the car is headed by Hutomo Mandala Putra, one of Suharto's children. Tutut is involved in similar dealings, and although her political ambitions are as hot as Indonesia's summer, her political prospects are likely to be shorter lived than a snowball there.

Bucharuddin Jusuf Habibie, the long-time Minister of Research and Technology, has made a raft of highly intelligent policy decisions for Indonesia. His investment policies, especially in the wake of the Indonesian oil boom of the early 1970s when cash flow was high, paid off in terms of economic growth. However, he has had some notable flops as well. The original idea for the national car was his, and despite a close partnership with South Korean car giant Kia, the car project is bleeding money. But that's only a flesh wound compared to Habibie's national airplane project, which is hemorrhaging so badly any rational policy doctor would have called time of death long ago. Habibie is smart, but he tends to overestimate Indonesia, and he tries too hard to act as if it were as superpower. Indonesia is populous, but it is still relatively poor, and giant projects such as his nuclear power project seem quixotic. Although he has been close to Suharto for years, these poor policy decisions have cast doubt on his ability to lead the nation.

Current Vice President Try Sutrisno is another strong possibility, with a metric ton of emphasis on strong. A former commander of Indonesia's Armed Forces, Sutrisno commands a powerful cult of personality. Most other Indonesian leaders of the past 30 years that have grown similar loyalties have been quietly relieved of their duty, lest Suharto be threatened. But because of Sutrisno's fierce loyalty to Suharto, the aging leader has allowed him to maintain his lofty position. Sutrisno became the source of outrage for some in 1991, when after a massacre in Dili, East Timor, he defended the army's action in putting violent end to a demonstration, and intimated that the army should have killed even more protestors than they did. While this made his popularity plummet among foreign journalists and Indonesian activists, it raised his popularity in the Indonesian army, not to mention Indonesia's nationalists, who are numerous by choice or by threat. Sutrisno is a solid leader, and he has what the other candidates lack: the strength to maintain the political and economic status quo, vital if Indonesia wants to survive a transition of power without violence or foreign capital flight.

One possibility that the Economist did not mention was Ali Alatas, Indonesia's well-spoken and popular Foreign Minister. Alatas is the consummate statesman, fluent in several languages, and a political and religious moderate. Some sources at the United Nations have said that if not for Indonesia's problems with East Timor (an area in which the United Nations squarely opposes Indonesia), Alatas could have been elected Secretary General instead of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, or perhaps after him. Because of his perceived forked, albeit silver, tongue on the Timor issue, he is not as popular with the army as Sutrisno, and given the strength and Constitutionally entrenched status of the army, military popularity is an important factor for the next leader of Indonesia. However, if Suharto wanted to tap a statesman for his successor, Alatas would be the most likely appointee.

These possibilities all assume a peaceful transition, should Suharto not run in the 1998 election, or if he steps down at any point, and throws his support behind one candidate. However, the man cannot live forever, and there is always the possibility that his death will toss Indonesia into a desperate search for a new source of stability to lead. Violence, even a military coup, cannot be entirely ruled out. However, outward appearances notwithstanding, Indonesia is not just Suharto. Businesses big and small have nothing to gain from instability, and the army, which has been allowed certain freedoms for the last few decades, is not ready to change the balance of power, or risk upsetting the system that has allowed them to prosper. There is an increasingly strong Islamist undercurrent, but it more directed against the current regime than it is pushing towards a more religion-oriented society -- Indonesia is the largest, but probably the most moderate, Muslim nation in the world.

Except for a few isolated radical movements, nobody in Indonesia wants a radical change, but few individuals are powerful enough to stop one if it should happen. If Sutrisno becomes the next leader, expect that Indonesian policy will remain very much on its present course, with a continuing hard edge on the Timor issue. If Alatas manages to talk his way into the Presidency, expect a "kinder, gentler" Indonesia, at least in terms of its diplomacy. Should anyone else take over, Indonesia risks political turmoil, as Suharto's shoes are large, and most modern Indonesian politicians have small feet. But political turmoil will not necessitate economic turmoil, and in any case, Indonesia looks likely to continue its steady march toward its goal -- envisioned by Habibe, powered by Sutrisno, and oiled by Alatas -- unambiguous status as a first-world nation.

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