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National Agenda : Suharto Keeps Indonesia Guessing at His Future : How long the president will continue his authoritarian rule and who will come after him remain unsettled questions. The uncertainty has cast a shadow on the nation.


JAKARTA, Indonesia — When an Indonesian playwright recently produced a satire called "Succession," about a king who outlives his usefulness, two significant events took place. Tickets to the show immediately sold out. And after 10 performances, the government closed the play down.

Although set in another time, few in Jakarta needed any hints that the play was really a wry commentary on the reign of President Suharto, the former army general who has ruled Indonesia since 1967.

With another election campaign already in full swing, the issues of how long Suharto will continue his authoritarian rule and who will come after him remain topical yet distinctly unsettled questions.

The leadership issue will decide the future direction of the world's fifth most populous country, where 179 million people are squeezed into an archipelago of more than 13,000 islands. Indonesia also has one of the region's fastest-growing economies, expanding at more than 7% a year in 1989 and 1990.

One of the world's top 15 oil producers, Indonesia exported $4.8 billion worth of goods to the United States in 1989. In addition to blossoming business relations, the Suharto government has generally supported U.S. policy in Southeast Asia, especially with a firm stand toward Communist regimes.

Although Suharto hinted in his autobiography that he might retire at the end of his current term in 1993, when he will become 72 years old, his more recent actions have left many convinced that he plans to seek another five-year term.

For example, earlier this month he made a pilgrimage to Mecca in what many analysts saw as an effort to shore up voter support in this predominantly Muslim country before announcing his candidacy.

"Everybody says he is (going to run again) and he hasn't given any signs that he is not," said Aristedes Katoppo, director of the mass circulation Suara Pembaruan newspaper.

Suharto has been in power so long, and his influence is so vast, that the succession issue casts a shadow over virtually every important decision in the country, especially the campaign for next year's election to the country's 500-seat Parliament.

While the Parliament is derided by critics as primarily a rubber-stamp of the government, it makes up half of the consultative assembly that will choose a new president in 1993.

More importantly, the conduct of the election campaign provides a revealing barometer of the political mood in the country at a time when Suharto's popularity is under challenge from a number of important new quarters.

"We like him. We respect him. But he's been too long in power," said Soemitro, an influential former general who like many leading Indonesians uses only one name. "We want to see him leaving gracefully. We are now entering a new era."

Suharto and his supporters assert that the authoritarian nature of the government, with strict controls on politics, speech and the press, has contributed to an atmosphere of stability that has allowed Indonesia to prosper.

They point to the Communist-led coup attempt in 1965, which took place under the charismatic rule of President Sukarno, as an example of the chaos that can result from political instability. Nearly half a million people died in the fighting, which led to Suharto taking power.

Now, however, Suharto's critics are becoming more vocal than ever before, asserting that the old standards by which Indonesia has been ruled are themselves an inhibition to development. Although the government says the country is getting more democratic, critics contend that the political process is closely controlled by those in power to serve their own ends.

For example, the consultative assembly that will elect the next president will contain 400 parliamentary members elected by the public and 600 (including 100 Parliament members) appointed by the government. Even the elected members must be "screened" by the police.

Among the frequent complaints against the regime, critics point to the growing "bureaucratization" of the country, with power concentrated in the hands of Golkar, Suharto's ruling party, which includes virtually the entire civil service and the military.

Second, there are economic complaints despite the country's impressive growth rate. The per capita gross national product figure for Indonesia is still just $520, for example--a quarter of that in Thailand. Factory employees here make the equivalent of 50 cents a day.

There is also mounting criticism of the government's decisions to award "monopolies" to private companies for the control of everything from flour to satellite communication. One of the most controversial of these was the recent award of a monopoly in the trade of cloves--a significant economic franchise in a country where cloves constitute a major ingredient in cigarettes--to Suharto's son, Tommy.

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