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Reforms a Tough Task for Indonesia

November 22, 1998

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ In March, 1,000 legislators obediently handed Indonesia’s President Suharto a seventh five-year term. Now, with Suharto forced from office, many of those delegates profess eagerness to scrap his authoritarian legacy.

Student protesters doubt their sincerity, and have fought deadly battles with the military this month while demonstrating their scorn for political reforms endorsed by Indonesia’s highest legislative body.

Still, inside the heavily guarded Parliament, legislators are hurriedly drafting laws for perhaps the most crucial reform: President B.J. Habibie plan to hold elections next year.

Change has already swept the Southeast Asian nation under Habibie, once Suharto’s protege, who took power after riots and protests helped oust the 77-year-old leader in May after 32 years in power.

New political parties and trade unions are sprouting. Many political prisoners have been freed. News organizations are much more freewheeling than in neighboring Singapore or Malaysia.

But Indonesia’s path toward democracy will be long and difficult, and possibly jeopardized by social tensions. On Sunday, mobs of Muslim youths attacked or burned at least 11 Christian churches and rioted in Jakarta. Police said at least six people were killed.

Although the 12 decrees adopted by the People’s Consultative Assembly are broad promises of change, it is unclear how vigorously the government will pursue them.

``They can provide the first step on the road to full democracy, but it’s not the whole thing. There are a lot of things to be done,″ said retired Lt. Gen. Hasnan Habib, a former ambassador to the United States and now a government critic.

Two major sticking points linger. The assembly ignored student demands that Suharto be put on trial and decided to reduce the military’s presence in politics rather than ban it altogether.

But sharp curbs were slapped on the executive branch. One decree limits Indonesia’s president to two five-year terms, in contrast to Suharto’s stay in office since 1965.

Another decree strips the presidency of emergency powers, which the same assembly granted Suharto earlier this year as economic turmoil and political discontent eroded his once-impregnable grip.

There is even a decree revoking dozens of Suharto-era decrees deemed to be abuses of power. Yielding to the terms of a financial bailout plan led by the International Monetary Fund, the government had already dumped many Suharto edicts.

Official perks that generated billions of dollars for the business empires of Suharto’s children are no more. They include tax breaks for the Timor national car project and a monopoly on cloves, the key ingredient in Indonesia’s popular perfumed cigarettes.

In the weeks ahead, opposition forces will be watching Parliament while it drafts electoral laws for a vote in May or June. Under Suharto, the ruling Golkar party guaranteed its victories by dominating the electoral machinery.

There are a host of details to haggle over: Will the election be held with the old proportional system that doles out legislative seats according to a party’s overall vote? Will it be a blend of that system and single-seat districts? How many members does a political party need to register? Is a signature enough proof of membership?

There is doubt the election will be held on time because so much needs to be done.

``It’s a daunting task,″ said Harold Koh, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. But after meeting Friday with Indonesian election officials, he said, ``I saw a lot of will to carry through with those dates and those deadlines.″

Doubts also persist about how aggressively the government will try to purge itself of corruption after all but ignoring graft among the elite for decades.

``The question is where to start, because of the scarcity of officials who are clean and credible,″ said Harry Tjan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private think tank.

The recent session of the special assembly cited Suharto in an edict against malfeasance but students dismissed it as rhetoric. On Saturday, Habibie ordered a new corruption inquiry into Suharto’s wealth after an earlier investigation found no wrongdoing.

The assembly’s pledge to reduce, not eliminate, the military’s 75 appointed seats in Parliament has fueled more student protests. The new quota has yet to be determined.

Critics of allocating seats to the military fear that if the election produces a fragmented Parliament of many contentious parties, the military may end with the biggest bloc of seats.

Lt. Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose job as the military’s head of political affairs was recently eliminated, said last week that the armed forces support reform but warned that their primary goal is to ensure national stability.

The military will not allow Indonesia to ``go any which way, especially if it starts heading in the wrong direction,″ Bambang said.

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