Indonesia faces challenges of a new era; Work of rebuilding nation under democratic leaders is ready to proceed


JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Having anointed its new leaders this week, Indonesia now finds itself facing the even more daunting task of redefining and reconstructing a nation whose institutions, politics, economy and sense of purpose had been bankrupted by the long rule of former President Suharto.

On Wednesday the national assembly elected a new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, ending the 17-month transitional leadership of B. J. Habibie, who took the first steps to liberate political discourse, freeing the press and setting in motion a freewheeling electoral process.

But in his public role, Habibie never managed to break free of his close association with his mentor, Suharto, and his tenure was fixated on political succession.

Now the real transition has taken place to an elected successor, and the post-Suharto era can truly begin.

Wahid, an Islamic leader, is one of the few major figures who gained prominence independent of either his connection with or opposition to Suharto. He brings the opportunity for Indonesia to start to look forward rather than back.

"Now we have a newborn baby," said a prominent economist, Emil Salim, at a recent conference. "Giving birth involved some pain and some blood, but now a new Indonesia is born."

But as with other emerging democracies, the agenda is almost entirely defined by the need to overcome the legacy of repression and military rule, of corruption and of the devaluation of government institutions during Suharto's 32-year rule.

"Suharto is gone, but his evil genius is still all around, wherever you look," said James C. Clad, an expert on Southeast Asia at Georgetown University.

Among other things, Suharto's repression of political discourse heightened a tendency toward eruptions of violence around the many islands that make up this huge nation of more than 200 million people.

Two days after the election, nearly 10,000 people demonstrated on the eastern island of Sulawesi, demanding independence from Indonesia.

Already the separation of East Timor as an independent nation has sharpened separatist demands in the provinces of Irian Jaya and Aceh, posing urgent problems of national stability for the new president.

In a way, Wahid's task of reconstruction is comparable to that of the leaders of East Timor, which was granted its independence this week by Indonesia, but only after vengeful anti-independence militias had virtually leveled its towns and villages.

Political analysts here see Wahid as a democrat at heart. But whatever his personal leanings, Indonesia has demonstrated over the past 17 months a popular momentum for openness and democratization that is likely to continue to influence government policies.

"There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic," said Eric Bjornlund, who represents the National Democratic Institute in Jakarta. "This is a different country than it was a year and a half ago."

Bjornlund's agenda for Wahid is similar to that of many other outside observers.

It includes constitutional reform to build in checks and balances, reform of the electoral system, reduction in the political role of the military, creation of an independent court system, greater autonomy to the provinces and cultivation of a more open and democratic culture.

Wahid's first step as president was to select Megawati Sukarnoputri as his vice president, forming an alliance with Indonesia's most popular politician and the standard bearer for the opposition to Suharto.

Wahid, 59, is frail and nearly blind, and many people say that his vice president could well succeed him before his five-year term is up.

His second and most important step will be to select his Cabinet, which will help define the character of his government.

He has already made it clear that national reconciliation is his priority, and he is expected to choose a group that represents a variety of interests.

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