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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 22, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 42

Stuck in the Middle
How B.J. Habibie's aides and allies both help and hurt him
By JOSE MANUEL TESORO and DEWI LOVEARD Jakarta


Habibie (center), feels indebted to Wiranto (left), who gave him needed backing Kemal Jufri for Asiaweek
On Oct. 10, U.N. peacekeeping forces shot dead an Indonesian policeman on the border between East and West Timor - an international conflict zone that did not exist 17 months ago when President B.J. Habibie took office. The following day, Habibie's attorney-general officially halted the government's investigation into former president Suharto. That dashes any hope that someone will be found responsible for the previous regime's suspected corruption. It looks equally un-likely that heads will roll for graft in Ha-bibie's own administration. A key audit, the release of which was demanded by the International Monetary Fund, is still under wraps. The report is believed to detail how figures close to the giddy, diminutive president siphoned some $73 million from the assets of Bank Bali.

If any of this mattered to Golkar, it showed little evidence. At a key leadership meeting on Oct. 11-12, the ruling party confirmed Habibie as its single 1999-2004 presidential candidate. (He promptly chose as his running mate armed forces chief Gen. Wiranto, who had yet to respond when Asiaweek went to press Oct. 13.) The People's Consultative Assembly (MPR in Indonesian) is perhaps more likely to notice the many things that have gone wrong during Habibie's brief tenure as president than what has gone right. On Oct. 14 the Assembly was set to hear Habibie's "accountability speech" - his explanation of the successes and failures of his transitional presidency. The MPR's reaction to the address will strongly influence Habibie's chances Oct. 20, when Assembly delegates elect the next chief executive.

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Special Report: People's Will?
Coalitions, caucuses, even a coup - democracy in Asia is getting more complicated and messy. Are the people's demands still getting through?

Pakistan: Here We Go Again After grabbing power for the fifth time in 52 years, Pakistan's generals may put in place a civilian government sooner rather than later

Timeline The ups and downs of Pakistan's recent history

Indonesia Win or lose, B.J. Habibie stands in the shadows

Malaysia Speculation continues over the election date

Precedent Can Anwar run for Parliament from Prison?

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It is ironic that in front of the MPR, Habibie will alone defend the actions (or inaction) of his administration. Of all In-donesia's presidents, Habibie seems to have been the most dependent on a close circle of advisers. During his 17 months in office since he took over from Suharto, they had more influence on its course than had been imagined. Some in his cabinet privately complain that he listens more to confidants and co-conspirators than his ministers. His allies filtered his reality. "We know that Habibie doesn't even read the newspapers himself," says a source close to a prominent minister. "He relies entirely on these people." One basic, unspoken question has dogged Habibie's presidency and, now, his attempt to stay in power: Who does this man serve - the country, himself or those surrounding him?

The front-runner in the presidential stakes remains Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose party won about 34% of the popular vote in June's parliamentary election. On Oct. 12, hundreds of her supporters in their trademark red colors marched through Jakarta threatening trouble if she were not elected. But with the intense eleventh-hour horse-trading taking place in the run-up to D-Day on Oct. 20, anything is possible. Megawati's once-staunch ally, Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid, is plotting his own course. He is himself now a presidential candidate, along with Megawati and Habibie. Though the president is clearly down, he is not totally out of the race. Of the three candidates, only Habibie has a record as head of state. The question is:How much of his authority stems from his own doing?

Take the East Timor referendum. He granted Indonesia's restive 27th province an unprecedented choice between autonomy and independence after receiving a letter from Australian PM John Howard. When the initiative was announced Jan. 27 this year, the media focused on what role his foreign policy adviser, political scientist Dewi Fortuna Anwar, had in that decision. "I feel flattered that I am seen as a person who can influence the president to let East Timor go," says Anwar. "It makes it look as if the president is dependent on me and cannot act independently." She says she wrote only a single memorandum to him arguing for a vote on independence by the former Portu-guese colony, annexed by Indonesia in 1976. "I do not even meet the president that often," she says, "though we do communicate through e-mail."

Then there is the Bank Bali scandal. This time, the main Habibie insider appears to be A.A. Baramuli, an MPR member from the president's home province of South Sulawesi who also chairs his Supreme Advisory Council. He was one of the people Habibie went to for help in navigating the obstacle-strewn path to his election. In mid-1999, Baramuli and a clutch of Habibie allies formed the so-called "Habibie Success Team," charged with securing his nomination within Golkar and his selection as president. One of its most notable successes: In the space of 24 hours before a key party meeting in May, they persuaded 10 wavering provincial Golkar chiefs to switch their vote to Habibie as the party's presidential candidate.

How did they do that? Most likely explanation: money. Bank Bali's president-director Rudy Ramli has testified that Baramuli and other Habibie associates pressured him to give them a $73-million kickback in exchange for a transfer of Bank Bali-owned loans from the bank restructuring agency IBRA. It is still a mystery whether that money went to Habibie's covert campaign, or whether it ended up lining the pockets of his associates. Baramuli did not return calls seeking comment on any involvement by him.

Adviser Umar Juoro says Habibie prefers to work with people who have similar ideas rather than ministers left over from Suharto's cabinets. Older brother J. Effendy "Fanny" Habibie adds that Habibie has always prized mental ability. As a child, says Fanny, Habibie found it difficult to communicate with people he considered intellectual inferiors. The president discusses issues with those he considers peers, but avoids whom he believes lack substance.

Most of Habibie's trusted aides came from organizations he once headed: the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI), the Ministry of Research and Technology, the Batam Authority, the state Agency for the Planning and Application Technology. Among themselves, they had their own links to each other. Some were Indonesian graduates of German universities, others were connected to the Muslim University Student Association, many had ties to the banned Muslim party Masyumi. Nearly all shared a belief in Muslim leadership in both politics and business.

main pakistan indonesia india malaysia All this is why, despite Habibie's early attempts to declare as nonexistent the divide between Chinese and pribumi (indigenous) Indone-sians, his government maintained an Islamist complexion. Last year, former ICMI secretary-general Adi Sasono, who Habibie brought in as his cooperatives minister, had pushed for a "people's economy." He argued for a move away from conglomerates to pribumi-run small- to medium-scale businesses. But many quarters read that stance as a call to take apart ethnic Chinese businesses and hand them to Muslims. When he was armed forces commander, retired Gen. Feisal Tanjung wrought closer ties between the military and Islam. A source in Tanjung's office says that his boss often said it is not important if the economy is set back, as long as Islam prospers. Tanjung is now Habibie's chief political minister.

No one but Habibie knows how deeply he shares his advisers' Islam-centric ideologies. (In fact, he had hesitated in 1990 to accept the chairmanship of ICMI because he said he was not confident in his grasp of Islam.) When a minister asked him last year to get IBRA to set aside a percentage of its seized assets for pribumi interests, Habibie refused. He also said no last November when his aides pressured him to fire Wiranto - who doubles as defense minister - after soldiers guarding the special MPR session shot dead seven students. The taciturn general has often acted at odds with the president, from arming pro-Indonesia militias in East Timor to withdrawing special riot-control troops from Aceh the day after Habibie said they would stay there. Still, Habibie is believed to remain beholden to Wiranto for securing his presidency.

The president inspires almost fanatical loyalty within his circle. "Habibie is a democrat, and I will defend him to the last drop of my blood," says former student leader Hariman Siregar, whose ties with the Habibie family go back decades. Current ICMI secretary-general Jimly Assidiqie calls the president "a man of the future." Admiration aside, there is also naked self-interest. A friend of a Muslim activist linked to Habibie shakes his head. The activist had organized demonstrations against Suharto's dictatorship. Now, says the friend, he goes around in BMWs and supports "Suharto's legacy: Habibie."

That dedication is among the reasons why, despite all the questions about his inner circle, Habibie is unlikely to cut anyone off for political reasons. Sources close to the president say he would never dare go after Baramuli, who is not only elder to him but an old friend of the family. The president also still needs them to secure his election. One tried tactic has been to use their Islamic connections and money to mobilize grassroots supporters and persuade top politicians to back Habibie.

Habibie's people certainly seem active within Golkar. Sources within the party allege a recent flood of money to cadres to reinforce their support for Habibie. One Golkar MP told Asiaweek he had received 500 million rupiah as a downpayment on a promised offer of 3 billion (about $380,000). "Who is going to refuse that sort of money, however idealistic you might be?," he asks. "After I get the money, I am going to resign and go back to school overseas."

So what drives Habibie's election bid: his ability and record, or because a lot of well-connected people find it convenient for him to be in power? The two goals have become difficult to distinguish from each other, and they exacerbate his legitimacy problems. The perception persists that only Muslim activists or canny political operators have his ear. Win or lose, Habibie may never shake the tag that he is not his own man.

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