JAKARTA, Indonesia -- After leading the world's fourth most-populous nation with a strong hand for more than three decades, Indonesian President Suharto -- the longest-serving leader in Asia -- succumbed to overwhelming public opposition today and resigned.
Moments after his speech, Suharto's vice president and close ally, B.J. Habibie, was sworn in as president.
"It would be very difficult for me to continue to lead the government or carry out the development of the economy," said a somber Suharto, reading from a prepared text and using words many in the country thought they might never hear. "So I have decided to resign my position as president of the Republic of Indonesia as of the reading of this announcement."
Suharto's peaceful resignation was seen as a sign of progress in this authoritarian nation of more than 200 million people with a tradition of political violence. The last time power changed hands in the mid-1960s, it was accomplished through a military coup and was followed by bloodshed that cost up to 500,000 lives.
Students, who had occupied the national parliament building for days, rejoiced at news of Suharto's resignation. But Indonesians did not take as well to the ascension of Habibie, the controversial former technology minister who is largely seen as an arm of Suharto.
"I'm happily relieved that he is out and it didn't take bloodshed and violence," said Aristides Katoppo, former head of one of the largest newspapers in Indonesia. But he added that Habibie, who has no power base of his own, may have a difficult time leading this sprawling nation.
"Because Habibie is associated with the outgoing president and a bankrupt system, unless he can initiate reform fast, he will probably become the fall guy," Katoppo said. "He may be impeached."
Speaking on national television after Habibie's swearing-in ceremony, General Wiranto, head of the country's armed forces, said the military backed the new president and asked the Indonesian people to remain calm.
He urged the nation to support Habibie and refrain from violence -- a direct reference to riots last week in Jakarta that left 500 dead and thousands of buildings damaged or destroyed.
It is unclear whether Habibie -- or any one person -- can lead Indonesia out of its worst economic crisis in more than 30 years.
"One of the real dangers of the current events is that in the euphoria that will follow this peaceful transition, Indonesians may come to expect a miracle cure for the economy," said Dennis de Tray, head of the World Bank office in Indonesia. "This economy has extremely deep-seated problems that are going to take time to work out.
"We need as absolutely soon as possible to get back to the monumental job of reform and rebuilding the economy."
Suharto said his protege would push forward economic reforms, but Habibie has been more associated with the kinds of big-government projects that have contributed to the nation's decline.
Suharto, 76, who is credited with raising the living standards of many of his people, is the biggest political casualty so far of an economic crisis that has gripped the fast-growing East Asian region since last summer.
Rapid economic meltdown
Anger over corruption, uncertainty over Suharto's eventual successor and a weak banking system have led to a rapid economic meltdown that has seen millions lose their jobs and the value of the Indonesian currency -- the rupiah -- fall by more than 70 percent.
It is a measure of the speed with which the nation has unraveled that as recently as a year ago, Suharto was seen as a hero throughout much of the developing world for his economic stewardship.
But his opponents finally cornered the wily leader, who had survived for decades by masterful obfuscation and pitting opponents against one another.
In an attempt earlier this week to cling to power, Suharto pledged to eventually step down after reshuffling his controversial Cabinet, holding elections to replace the legislature and paving the way for the selection of a successor.
Many, however, saw these concessions as a delaying tactic that would allow Suharto to control how and when he left office as well as who might succeed him. Students continued to press for his ouster, and parliament leaders said they would call a special legislative session to remove him if he didn't voluntarily leave.
Mass protest canceled
The capital narrowly avoided bloodshed yesterday after Muslim leader Amien Rais, Suharto's chief rival, called off a mass bTC demonstration. Rais said he canceled the anti-Suharto rally after members of the military suggested that it could lead to a crackdown like the one that crushed the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989, leaving hundreds of Chinese dead.
"I don't want to sacrifice people's lives to make Suharto step down," Rais said yesterday. The demonstration was expected to have drawn as many as 1 million people.
Jakarta has been a city under siege in recent days. Troops armed with automatic rifles, along with tanks and and armored personnel carriers, blocked boulevards leading to Jakarta's National Monument, where Rais' rally was to have taken place.
In places, soldiers strung barbed wire across streets and sidewalks to prevent anyone from passing. Riding two to a motorcycle, police patrolled smaller roads with M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders.
Ousted founding father
As a little-known soldier, Suharto came to power with the help of students after what the government described as an abortive Communist coup in 1965. He ousted the nation's founding father, Sukarno.
Indonesian students also played a key role in ending Suharto's career. They were the first members of Indonesian society to come out in force to call for political reform and Suharto's resignation.
Suharto's departure leaves a power vacuum in the country. During his 32 years in office, Suharto effectively quashed organized opposition and largely stripped politics from Indonesian culture.
If the nation does not support Habibie, it will face the difficult task of finding a consensus leader who has yet to emerge. Asked yesterday who might succeed Suharto, former parliamentary member Mangisara Lubis said he didn't know.
"A leader," he said with hope, "will be born."
Pub Date: 5/21/98