Suharto's ill health causes tension in Jakarta


By James Balowski

In the wake of large demonstrations against government manipulation to remove Megawati Sukarnoputri as leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), questions over President Suharto's health have again brought the issue of the presidential succession to the fore. On July 8, Suharto left for Germany to undergo treatment for unspecified kidney, liver and heart complaints.

Suharto, who is now 75 and serving his sixth presidential term, has for three decades presided over a rigid and authoritarian political system which emphasises "political stability" and "economic development" at the expense of human rights and political freedoms. Suharto has yet to nominate a successor, and uncertainty over what might happen should he die or be incapacitated sent the Jakarta stock exchange into a spin.

Conflict within the elite has also become sharper, much of it focusing on the presidential succession.

Minister of information and Suharto crony Harmoko, who is also chair of the state party Golkar, would be able to count on minister of research and technology Habibie, but would receive little support from the military. He also faces a faction headed by Wahono loyalists, whom he ousted from the Golkar leadership in 1993. They would receive parliamentary backing from PDI and sections of the armed forces (ABRI).

ABRI appears divided into two groups, armed forces chief Feisal Tanjung and army chief Hartono, both known as Habibie loyalists, versus the regional military commanders. Habibie, who has the strongest influence with Suharto, has an independent political base in the Islamic Scholars Association and the support of government technocrats.

Constitutionally, the vice-president, Tri Sutrisno, would automatically become the next president if Suharto died. But few within ABRI consider him capable of leading the country. Harmoko is understood to oppose the automatic accession of the vice-president, and Habibie has stated that the president should be "mandated" by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR).

Another possible contender is retired General Sumitro, who headed the notorious intelligence network Kopkamtib. One of Suharto's political rivals in the 1970s, he is a skilled politician who has retained close links with the military. In recent years he has made a number of public statements supporting cautious reform.

Regardless of whether he goes on to claim a seventh term in 1998, it is becoming obvious to everyone that a replication of the kind of power wielded by Suharto is impossible. The fundamental problem that faces the regime, therefore, is how to manage an "orderly" succession, and how to construct a post-Suharto government which assures a place for them.

Greater political openness has been forced upon the regime by growing pressure from below and a changing society. At the same time, it has exposed the regime to criticism and demands for deeper reform. The regime has been vacillating between loosening political control and sudden clampdowns while trying to maintain an appearance of ongoing political liberalisation.

An illustration of this was the banning of three major news weeklies, Tempo, DeTIK and Editor, in June 1994. The Indonesian press had begun to report issues which not long before would have been considered taboo. But when these publications provided space for other members of the elite to criticise Suharto, they were promptly banned.

Suharto's political support has also narrowed. Forces which helped consolidate Suharto's power base after 1965 — business and the land owning class, political Islam, students, and especially ABRI — have been marginalised from any real political or economic role. And as Suharto has grown older, his clique of trusted advisers has also dwindled. The president has come to rely on a very small circle of close associates and his family, in particular his daughter Tutut.

The regime is also facing an ideological crisis. Historically, much of the New Order regime's legitimacy is based on economic growth and political stability. Even after the end of the Cold War, the "threat of communism" is still used to justify tight political control.

The New Order came to power at a time when the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and the left in general were experiencing a spectacular rate of growth. Unable to defeat the worker and peasant movement politically, the army simply obliterated opponents, killing as many as a million communists and left-wing sympathisers and interning thousands of others for long periods. Many survivors of this period are still alive and harbour a deep-seated hatred for the regime.

For the younger generation, the "trauma" of 1965 is becoming less relevant, and even the mainstream media have begun to question the official version of events. People are beginning to ask why, if economic development and stability are all the regime claims, is the regime so frightened to loosen its hold on society.

Very early on, the regime took steps to control the electoral process. The nationalist and Christian parties were forced to merge into the PDI, and those representing Islamic interests into the United Development Party (PPP). In effect, the regime simply "put a lid" on the parties and the class interests they represented.

One consequence of such tight control has been to obstruct the emergence of any kind of "mediating" political force. To some extent NGOs have filled this gap, but in recent years have been unable to take up broader political struggles. Indonesia has no labour or liberal party to articulate the interests of the urban middle class and small business. The only legally recognised trade union, the government-controlled All Indonesian Labour Union, is viewed by most workers as an impediment to their struggles. In such a climate, radical and militant labour organisations have been able to develop.

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