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South-East Asia

Suharto makes early bid for presidency

Hamid Papang

Indonesia’s presidential elections are not due until next March but general Suharto is taking no chances. Not that his own position is threatened. He wants to make sure that even his running mate is chosen through consensus.

This is how things are done in the Southeast Asian archipelago - tiger, to use its more popular name - under Suharto.

For the ruling Golkar party, winning the May 29 general election was easy. It even topped its expected target of 70 percent vote by four points. No surprises there since much of the State machinery was pressed into service to produce the desired results.

The difficult part comes next. Suharto is 76 but he insists on seeking a seventh five-year term as president. When he celebrated his seventysixth birthday on June 8, most observers expressed concern about whether he would be able to complete his entire sixth term much less going into the seventh.

His close aides privately concede that Suharto remains depressed for prolonged periods because of the death of his Catholic wife, Tien, last year. Tien was a strong-willed woman who had immense influence and control over Suharto. Without her presence, he feels adrift. This has enabled his children to indulge in intrigue to manoeuvre themselves into advantageous positions.

Suharto’s dependence on his wife is also reflected in the fact that he is grooming his eldest daughter, Siti Hardianti Rukmana - known as Tutut, in keeping with the tradition of silly-sounding names - to succeed him. Perhaps he sees a younger image of Tien in Tutut, a successful ‘businesswoman’ in her own right. She has a reputation for being loose. Tutut was used in blunting some of the appeal in last May’s elections of Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of the country’s first president, Sukarno, whom Suharto overthrew in a bloody coup in 1966.

Suharto’s presidential bid, though virtually assured, is causing anxiety among senior Golkar members. A secret campaign is underway to look for someone younger. Could Suharto have got wind of it? His promotion of Tutut would be a shrewd move to circumvent any rumblings of revolt, however slim, in the party.

During his 30-year rule, Suharto has maintained an iron-grip on the country. While he has helped raise the standard of living of his poverty-stricken people of 180 million, this has been at the expense of severe curtailment of their fundamental rights. But more than raising people’s standard of living, Suharto has enabled his family - daughters and sons - to strike it rich. There is hardly a business venture in which the Suharto off-springs do not have a finger.

His youngest son Hutomo Mandala Putra owns PT Timor Putra Nasional, the company that is to produce Indonesia’s own car in association with Kia Motors Corp of South Korea. It helps to be the president’s son. Government policy conveniently gives tax and tariff breaks to produce a ‘national’ car.

But political analysts say a feeling of change is in the air, with rising tension over disparities in wealth, demands for more political openness and the overriding question of a successor to Suharto himself. ‘In terms of fostering long-term stability, promoting unity

and economic development, he gets top grades,’ says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, analyst with the Centre for Information and Development Studies (CIDES) in Jakarta. ‘But in terms of developing the political system, the record is very patchy.’

While claiming a 74 percent vote in the May 29 general elections, most people, including Golkar insiders, know that it does not truly reflect the people’s sentiment. This was the most violent campaign in three decades. It focused attention on such issues as the wealth gap, frustrations with an autocratic political system and pervasive corruption affecting the man in the street.

There is also keen interest in who he will select as his vice-president when the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), comprising 500 parliamentarians and 500 appointees, meets next March to elect the president and his running mate. While no vice-president has had a second term, some analysts believe the present incumbent, Try Sutrisno, has a reasonable chance. Another name is former army chief of staff, general Hartono, who retired in June to become information minister.

A senior Asian diplomat said Suharto would be working hard over the coming months to build a consensus with the powerful armed forces (ABRI) and the political establishment ahead of the MPR vote. ‘What he would want to avoid is an alternative candidate being put forward. He will want to get a consensus behind the vice-president because his own re-election is assured,’ the diplomat said. ‘The most important thing is to win ABRI support for the vice-president.’

ABRI’s role is crucial. Despite the civilian facade, Indonesia is a military dictatorship. The military’s overbearing presence in all spheres of life, including politics and business, reflects its immense influence. Suharto himself came to power through the barrel of the gun. His power-base remains the military which is also the centre of power in the country.

Years of imposed stability creates pressures of its own. Suharto’s departure is likely to lead to an explosion in the country. He will only have himself to blame.

Muslimedia - August 1-15, 1997

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 11

Rabi' al-Awwal 27, 14181997-08-01

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