TOO LATE, General Suharto accepted the inevitable by resigning as president of Indonesia, after 32 years of personal rule. He elevated his protege, Vice President B. Jusuf Habibie, to serve out the remaining five years of the presidential term. That is not likely to happen.
It was the old dictator's stubborn decision in March to make Mr. Habibie vice president that set off the final collapse of the rupiah and internal demonstrations demanding an end to the Suharto era. The calm departure of President Suharto is positive, but the Habibie presidency is not the answer -- a view domestic dissidents and world markets share. It looks too much like the continuation of Suharto rule.
In his first televised statement, President Habibie expressed "my commitment to all of the people's aspirations for reform, which will be done gradually and constitutionally in all aspects . . ." If it is too gradual, he will see the Indonesian people hasten the pace.
General Wiranto, commander of the armed forces, expressed support for the transition and called for calm. The army is the decisive element in holding the country together. But the willingness of its privates to shoot their own people is in doubt.
To gain credibility, President Habibie must not protect the crony capitalism and the wealth of the Suharto family, but open up the economic system. This is as essential for the confidence of world markets as it is for the aggrieved populace.
The third International Monetary Fund plan has collapsed and the number of billions of dollars needed to shore up the economy has increased because of the recent riots and the inevitable defaults on private loans.
To regain world confidence,President Habibie must also begina national political consultation that includes all elements of opinion. This must lead, in advance of the constitutional time frame, to active democracy. Indonesia has never tried that, but has a literate, sophisticated population ready to start.
Without true reform, the Habibie presidency will be seen only as an extension of Suharto rule that will not endure.
Pub date: 5/22/98