Suharto's Dilemma

He must move toward democracy--or risk massive social unrest

So desperate is President Suharto to keep a firm grip on the May 29 elections that Indonesians are literally killing each other over the issue of green vs. yellow paint. In the province of Central Java earlier this year, the officially sanctioned Islamic opposition party put up its signature green flags. But workers for Golkar, Suharto's party, tore down the flags and painted the town yellow, the Golkar party color--slathering yellow paint over government offices, tree trunks, curbstones, and other public property. The Islamic party ripped down the yellow flags and covered the yellow paint with neutral white. Then, rampaging mobs trashed freshly painted yellow buildings. An Islamic party leader was hospitalized, at least one Golkar member was killed, and hundreds went to jail.

After 31 years in power, this reelection of the 75-year-old Suharto is likely to be his last. His astounding record of modernization is now tainted by widespread resentment over corruption, the preferential treatment of Suharto family members involved in billion-dollar business deals, and crackdowns on popular opposition figures. The unprecedented preelection violence is cause for concern. And Indonesians worry that the tensions could again explode into violence rivaling the carnage of 1965, when hundreds of thousands of suspected communists--mainly ethnic Chinese--were massacred. "Emotions at present are very high," says Abdul Gafur, a senior Golkar official. Jakarta residents are stocking their kitchens with rice and canned goods ahead of the election. Ethnic Chinese and Western expatriates are leaving for extended vacations in Singapore until after the election uproar subsides.

A THREAT TO INVESTMENT? Even if the violence is contained, the elections will not resolve Suharto's dilemma: a retired general accustomed to autocratic rule, he must begin a transition to a more democratic society if he wants to avert massive unrest and preserve Indonesia's economic miracle. Foreign investors have committed $176 billion but the numbers could drop quickly if Indonesia is riven by violence. Suharto has disappointed the business community by backsliding on promises to open up the economy and cut corruption. Reform efforts have also met resistance from Suharto's cronies and his six grown children, who have steadily increased their profits from Indonesian business deals. This election is the first in which Suharto children, including daughter Siti Hardi-yanti Rukmana, or Tutut, are running for elected office.

Prominent Indonesian academics and human-rights lawyers know what Suharto should do. He must designate a successor, set a limit on the number of terms future presidents can serve, curb the role of the Indonesian military in government, give the courts autonomy to reach just verdicts, and then step aside. "We still have a long way to go toward a truly representative democracy," says Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a senior economist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, a government-run think tank.

This would be a radical change of course for Suharto. But the days are gone when economists figured Suharto could rule as he pleased if he kept the economy growing at 7% a year, built better schools and hospitals, and kept rice and kerosene on the shelves of the village shops. "Development has made Indonesians clever," says Lukman Sutrisno, professor of rural sociology at Gadjah Madah University in Yogyakarta. "Now it's not so easy to manipulate them." Even government officials have noticed a change. "People don't really trust the government," says Bank Indonesia Governor J. Soedradjat Djiwandono. "Anytime we say anything, everyone asks, `Is that true?' It's sad." Official denials of the President's ill health aren't helping. A newspaper ran a picture of Suharto on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle following rumors he had suffered a mild stroke. Indonesians weren't convinced.

Suharto's moves to quell opposition also seem to be having the opposite effect. Last July, army troops stormed the campaign headquarters of opposition leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's founding president, Sukarno. She was banned from running in the election, but if anything, the crackdown has enhanced her stature.

OPPOSITION HEROES. Likewise Labor leader Muchtar Pakpahan, now on trial for the capital crime of insulting the President, has earned sympathy after authorities denied him permission to travel abroad for desperately needed medical care. And on Apr. 28, nine pro-democracy students who drafted a new Indonesian constitution received prison sentences for subversion ranging up to 13 years. They too have won the affection of many. "The authorities are making heroes out of these young people," says J.E. Sahetapy, a law professor at Airlangga University in Surabaya. Even senior Golkar officials admit that now famous opponents would have remained obscure if not for the government's heavy-handed tactics.

ECONOMIC MIRACLE. Suharto has also ignored two government think-tank recommendations aimed at defusing the tension. The first suggested changing electoral law to give the opposition a fair shake. The second recommended forbidding military officers from holding seats in the House of Representatives. Suharto has reduced the number of House seats reserved for the army from 100 to 75 but shows no intention of going further. "A military officer's loyalty should be to those who elected him, not to the army," says Anwar.

Suharto is hoping his economic successes ultimately will keep ordinary Indonesians on his side. Per capita income has risen from $50 to $1,370 under his rule, and annual inflation has dropped from 600% to 7%. Paved roads, sleek express trains, international flight routes, and cellular telephone grids now crisscross Java. The remaining 17,000 islands of the Indonesian archipelago are catching up fast. When Suharto tours the countryside, rice farmers boast, without lying, that they are far better off than their parents were.

That may not be enough as Indonesians achieve just enough affluence and confidence to yearn for more democratic rule. Yet Suharto has been the only Indonesian with enough power to stabilize the political scene and keep the island chain intact as a nation. "It is better that I am healthy rather than sick, although many are praying for me to become sick," the President told schoolchildren visiting his palace in early May. The best outcome would be for a still-healthy Suharto to spend his waning years creating a democratic legacy. If, instead, he rules without change until he drops, 200 million Indonesians will be left to cope with the violent aftermath.

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