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OCTOBER 25, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 16

Taking It Right Down to the Wire
Indonesia heats up as protesters return to the streets and politicians jostle to elect the country's new president
By NISID HAJARI


John Stanmeyer/Saba
Protesters call for President Habibie not to be re-elected.

For two years, Ratna Juwita has watched Indonesia stumble toward democracy. She sells soft drinks on Jakarta's Merdeka Square, across the street from where crowds often besiege the heavily guarded presidential palace. This week, with the capital wound tight as a drum before the election of the country's new president on Oct. 20, she has some advice for those who would rule Indonesia. "If the system was clearer," she says, "there wouldn't be so many clashes."

Few seem to be listening. Instead the horse trading, hint-dropping and stone-cold politicking that have dominated the legislature in recent days have only made things murkier than ever. The presidential race has narrowed to three figures: B.J. Habibie, the incumbent; Megawati Sukarnoputri, the leading vote-getter in last June's popular election; and the cryptic, revered Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur. That none can command a simple majority in the 700-member national assembly (known by its Indonesian acronym, MPR) has laid the vote open to precisely the kind of byzantine dealmaking that riles the crowds on Merdeka Square. "In the end, all of the conflicts and divisions will become irrelevant," says Nabiel Makarim, secretary general of the independent monitoring group Parliament Watch. "It will be about power and how to maximize it."

    ALSO IN TIME
Indonesia: Cloudy Forecast
A bout of hard-nosed politicking has thrown open the race for president to a wide spectrum of possibilities

Interview
Amien Rais analyzes the free-for-all

Books: Pastor of the Revolution
A biography of Bishop Belo depicts a reluctant East Timorese hero

East Timor: A Shaky Start
International peacekeeping forces meet less resistance than had been feared, but continuing reports of violence make it clear that the militias won't just fade away (Oct. 4, 1999)

Viewpoint
Insecurity drives Indonesia's xenophobia (Oct. 4, 1999)

Marching into Trouble
The multinational peacekeeping force that lands this week is entering a minefield--just the first on what promises to be a long road to independence (Sept. 27, 1999)

Eyewitness
In a terror-struck village outside Dili, the Indonesian army makes a show of taking food aid to hungry refugees (Sept. 27, 1999)

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Keeping the Peace
A measure of calm returns to East Timor with the arrival of international troops. But the real challenge is not bringing peace but keeping it

  MESSAGE BOARD
Indonesia and East Timor

Habibie should be more worried about how to hold onto it. His attempt to defend his 17-month tenure before the assembly last Thursday fell on deaf ears. Four of the 11 parties represented in parliament rejected the speech outright, while the others all voiced reservations. The criticism did not immediately derail the election chances of the embattled President, who was scheduled to respond on Sunday. But outside the assembly building the verdict was more definitive. Hours before the address, 10,000 demonstrators armed with sticks, stones and gasoline bombs clashed with riot police; the next day an additional 5,000 returned to the streets.

Legislators say they have ample reason to oust Habibie: the bloody debacle in East Timor, a bank scandal involving $68 million allegedly paid into his Golkar party's coffers, his attorney general's decision to drop the investigation into whether former President Suharto siphoned billions of dollars into charitable organizations. But Habibie has kept his chances alive by exploiting the electoral system. In addition to Golkar's 120 elected seats, he is believed to have bargained for the loyalty of 50 regional delegates. He has also courted Islamic parties leery of Megawati's decision to fill around 40% of her party's seats with Christians.

A similar realpolitik lies behind Habibie's choice of armed forces chief General Wiranto as vice-presidential running mate. In a race that many expect to be close, the 38 appointed seats held by the military could tip the balance. "The military wants the vice-presidency because they are afraid of isolation" after years of enjoying political dominance, says Afan Gaffar, a special assistant to the home affairs minister. The army's best bet may be Habibie--another relic of the Suharto era, and one weak enough to pose little threat to its ambitions.

Habibie's rivals are pinning their hopes on the faith that Indonesia has moved on. "People are expecting change, and Habibie does not symbolize this," says Alwi Shihab, a chairman of Gus Dur's National Awakening Party (PKB). "If Habibie wins, I'm afraid we will encounter a reaction similar to what Suharto faced in his final days." Megawati partisans in particular have played loudly upon the fear of disorder. Thousands of her red-clad supporters have flooded Jakarta, threatening revolution if she is denied what they see as her mandate to rule. Such threats guarantee Megawati nothing, of course, and have infuriated an élite more accustomed to working out differences behind closed doors. Even Megawati's advisers in the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) have begun to complain privately of her reluctance to dirty her hands with dealmaking. The party "has to get beyond the euphoria of the general election and get down to the business of lobbying," says one insider.

Her passivity has opened the door to Gus Dur, a one-time Megawati supporter who now believes the race should include more than two candidates. The half-blind cleric--who leads the Nadhlatul Ulama, a moderate Muslim organization with 30 million members--has actually won greater support from a loose coalition of eight Islamic parties known as the Central Axis than from his own PKB, which still claims to back Megawati. "We believe natural democracy based on argument will prevail over the anarchistic democracy practiced by the PDI-P," says Hartono Mardjono, deputy chairman of the Axis-linked Crescent Star Party. Axis members are united largely by opposition to Megawati; Gus Dur, who likes to claim that he is "not anti-anyone," is for them the ideal compromise candidate.

Alliances, though, will no doubt shift up until the last minute. "A Gus Dur-Megawati ticket is probably something Golkar could live with," says Marzuki Darusman, leader of Golkar's reform wing. If no such clear winner emerges on the first ballot, however, the two leading vote-getters will face a run-off election. Many students fear that if that contest pits Habibie against Megawati, the President could prevail with the help of Axis votes. By the same token Golkar would likely support Gus Dur over the populist Megawati in the hopes of holding onto some measure of power in a new administration.

Far more certain is the prospect that last week's street violence will intensify, which could well render all political handicapping moot. "If we have mob politics, there is the real possibility that the military could step in," warns Habibie adviser Dewi Fortuna Anwar. At last Thursday's protest one student danced maniacally only 20 m from helmeted riot police, the red beams of laser-sighted rifles crisscrossing his thin chest. "Come on! Shoot me, you cowards, shoot me if you dare!" he screamed. The soldiers held their fire, but neither he nor Indonesia should be tempting fate right now.

Reported by Zamira Loebis, Jason Tedjasukmana and Lisa Rose Weaver/Jakarta

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