WASHINGTON — Two aging dictators began this year seeking to hold onto power in huge, mineral-rich Third World countries. One of them is thriving, the other is about to fall. The interesting question is: Why do the two men seem headed for such different fates?
The dictators are Presidents Suharto of Indonesia and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. Both men have ruled their nations for more than three decades, since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency. The two are, in their own way, almost as much a legacy of America in the mid-1960s as the Beach Boys or the civil rights movement.
Coming to power after coups d'etat (Mobutu in 1965, Suharto in 1966), both strongmen won U.S. backing during the Cold War. In both cases, the United States feared that popular nationalist leaders (Patrice Lumumba in Zaire, President Sukarno in Indonesia) might come under the influence or control of Communist forces.
Suharto, 76, and Mobutu, 66, are comparable in other ways, too. For the last 30 years, both have led regimes noteworthy for their corruption as they parceled out access to gold, diamonds and other natural resources.
Now, as each fights the ravages of old age, they are being challenged by the followers and even the children of the leaders they defeated long ago. Mobutu is losing power to Laurent Kabila, a disciple of Lumumba, while Suharto last year fended off a brief political challenge from Megawati Sukarnoputri, Sukarno's daughter.
Nevertheless, despite these surface similarities, the two men now find themselves in strikingly different situations.
Mobutu's prospects now seem best described by the adjective applied to injured ballplayers: day-to-day. Last weekend, he sat down for the first time for peace talks with Kabila, whose forces are closing in on the Zairean capital of Kinshasha. On Tuesday, Mobutu announced he will travel to Gabon today. While Mobutu insisted he would return later this week, the question now is not whether but how soon Mobutu's reign will end.
Suharto, by contrast, is just now in the process of quietly staging another victory in an election he thoroughly controls. Indonesians will vote May 29 for 425 members of a 1,000-member Parliament (of the others, 75 come from the military and 500 are government-appointed). Suharto's ruling party confidently forecasts it will win more than 70% of the vote.
Election rallies have been prohibited. Speeches on television must be approved by the government. Of late, the Indonesian regime has been seeking to repress not only political opposition but also a movement to boycott the elections. For good measure, several Indonesian student and democracy activists have just been sentenced to long jail terms for subversion.
The new Legislature is scheduled to choose a new president next year. Hint: Bet on Suharto, who has said he wants another five-year term.
What are the lessons here? Is this strictly a matter of Suharto being a better, and physically healthier, leader than the ailing Mobutu? Perhaps, but there are a number of other factors at work.
Politically, as the current election shows, Suharto learned to maintain the veneer of popular legitimacy. He has managed, barely, to fend off outside criticism by appearing to hold to the outward forms of the legal process, while reining in all effective dissent. That is now a common technique in Asia: In Singapore, authorities use the cover of libel law to attack political opponents. Mobutu never learned this sort of subtlety.
Economically, Suharto demonstrated that the path to riches has changed. Even for countries rich in national resources, such as Indonesia and Zaire, it is not enough to simply mine diamonds or gold. The quickest way to national growth comes not from wealth in the ground, but from factories that make goods for export.
Following others in East Asia--such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China--Indonesia learned that one key to economic success was selling to the U.S. market. Some of the sneakers and T-shirts in your local shop may say "Made in Indonesia." None will say "Made in Zaire."
In foreign policy, Suharto has been a reasonably good neighbor, while Mobutu has been a poor one. Other countries in Asia would probably just as soon have Suharto stay on for a while, rather than face upheavals in his country or the unknown. The same cannot be said for Mobutu, who feuded with and fostered civil wars against neighboring nations.
Finally, Suharto has prospered from a bit of luck. He has lived and worked in the right neighborhood: East Asia has been, for the last quarter century, the fastest-growing part of the world.
Indeed, the varying prospects of Mobutu and Suharto demonstrate how much times have changed.
In the 1960s, it did not seem utterly preposterous to lump together countries like Indonesia and Zaire. They, and many other nations like them, had recently emerged from colonial rule and seemed to face similar problems. Now, even the phrase "Third World" seems outmoded: Asia, Africa and Latin America have all taken their own separate paths.
These two strongmen were products of the same era and similar circumstances. Now, they serve as symbols of different policies, different continents. Mobutu is about to give up power. Don't look for Suharto to do that any time soon.
Jim Mann's Column appears in this space every other Wednesday.