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Western Press Review: Indonesia Faces Unpredictable Future

By Elizabeth Weinstein and Dora Slaba

Prague, 22 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- With President Suharto of Indonesia out of power, restless Indonesians now focus on the man who's temporarily, at least, taken Indonesia's helm -- President B.J. Habibie. But Western press today warns that Habibie's weak power base, brewing opposition and his affiliation with Suharto signal that Indonesians should be careful what they wish for.

ECONOMIST: Habibie will cut no ice with the students

The Economist (May 23) carries this analysis: "Mr. Habibie, an engineer turned industry minister who has sought to build an Islamist following, will scarcely be a popular choice. He will cut no ice with the students, and is viewed with suspicion even by the army. His ideas for developing Indonesia's industry horrify the sort of foreign lenders and bankers that the country still needs as much as ever."

The Economist analysis also introduces Habibie's opponents: "But opposition leaders are now emerging, and would emerge further if given the chance in a properly democratic system. They include Amien Rais, a university lecturer and Muslim leader who displayed a creditable sense of responsibility in calling off the mass protests on May 20. He has been the only one to offer himself repeatedly as an alternative to Mr. Suharto."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Mr. Habibie hardly seems the right man

An analysis in the Financial Times says Habibie faces a past that will come back to haunt him: "In his first address to the nation yesterday, Mr. Habibie expressed his committment to constitutional reform and increased democracy. He promised to appoint a reform-minded cabinet and to honor all the economic reforms already agreed with the International Monetary Fund."

"All those things are necessary, but Mr. Habibie hardly seems the right man to implement them. He has consistently opposed such moves in the past, and lined up against the very technocrats he now suggests should rejoin government."

TIMES: Habibie has been no favorite of the military

David Watts of The Times, London, calls Habibie a "puppet" who's replaced his master. Habibie's power base is shallow, Watts writes, and the chances for reform are slim: "The new president's power base appears to be largely with Muslim intellectuals and some businessmen, but he has been no favorite of the military."

Watts continues, "It will take all of Dr. Habibie's powers of persuasion to convince Indonesians that he is going to run a different type of government, and all the expertise his German education can provide to pull his country out of what has been widely seen as a terminal nosedive."

NEW YORK TIMES: He may last only a few months Steven Erlanger, in a New York Times analysis, quotes Sidney Jones, an Indonesian scholar, who says Habibie's affiliation with Suharto will damage him from the start. Erlanger writes: "Habibie, who has little popular backing, may last only a few months. As Suharto's heir, he is perceived as the man appointed to protect Suharto's children."

And citing Jones, Erlanger concludes: "Ms. Jones hopes he will use the time he has to begin a new dialogue with the Indonesian people, release political prisoners, repeal repressive laws, set free elections and begin a serious discussion about political reform and autonomy with the people of East Timor. 'But even if he does move out boldly,' she asked, 'will anyone trust him?'"

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The opposition leader, Amien Rais, has already declared that he will remain alert

Stefan Klein, a writer for Sueddeutsche Zeitung, says Habibie's success is based on his political choices, and that friends could soon turn into opponents: "For safety sake the students should not be allowed to give up the occupation of parliament, and the opposition leader, Amien Rais, has already declared that he will remain alert. He has avowed that his support of Habibie, with whom he is friends, is dependent on whether Habibie gathers around him a truly professional and clean team of ministers."

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE: Can a man from the old regime be more than a figurehead?

An editorial in Frankfurter Allgemeine carries this analysis of Habibie's opposition: "Can a man from the old regime be more than a figurehead for the transition? He may have the advantage of a disunity among the opposition. It has neither political or economic recipes that find consensus in its ranks. The military, too, does not demand more than a say in matters. Suharto's "new order" will first of all have to provide comprehensive room for social consciousness."

DE STANDAARD: The cause of the crisis have not been removed

The Flemish daily, De Standaard, says Habibie represents nothing more than a continuation of the old order: "The resignation of Suharto constitutes a continuation of violent conflicts: The dictator has resigned, but the cause of the crisis have not been removed."

It continues: "Suharto became a symbol of a system which belonged to the most outstanding in the world in its despotism and corruption. The current scenario is denoted officially as a transition toward a democratic system, but how can that be achieved with a man like Habibie, who is a symbol of the continuity?"

WALL STREET JOURNAL: It is impossible to guess what will come next

An analysis in the Wall Street Journal Europe says that despite the opposition, Indonesians themselves will be the ultimate judges of Habibie's rise to power: "Yesterday's conga lines of cheering university students with their chants of "Down With Habibie" and "reform now" seem to represent a significant segment of opinion among the educated and the middle class. But they cannot tell the whole story in a nation of 200 million."

The analysis concludes: "Events are moving so swiftly in Indonesia that it is impossible to guess what will come next. But certainly Mr. Habibie must expect popular judgment of his appointment and, somewhere, Mr. Suharto must await the verdict of history and his people on the era that closed yesterday."