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As Election Looms, Indonesian Presidency Is Still Up for Grabs

By Keith B. Richburg

For more than three decades, Indonesia’s People’s Consultative Assembly has been largely a rubber stamp, ratifying the appointment of presidents already in place. Now, as the 700-member assembly meets for its first session in Indonesia’s new era of democratic reform, no one -- including the members themselves -- has a clue who Indonesia’s next president will be.

The incumbent, President B.J. Habibie, made it clear he is in the race to stay, despite huge daily demonstrations against his rule and sharp criticisms from assembly members.

“I hope to continue the struggle until the last minute,” an emotional Habibie told soldiers and security personnel at a ceremony. “I don’t want to say goodbye. I don’t want to bid farewell.”

Trying to oust Habibie is the hugely popular but politically inexperienced opposition leader, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno. Her supporters staged one of their daily demonstrations Monday in Jakarta’s central business district, turning a traffic circle into a sea of red -- her trademark color -- and warning that unless she is elected diehard followers will stage what they call “revolution.”

Megawati’s “red army,” as they are called, run the spectrum of age and income. “I came here to sympathize with her supporters,” said Adung, a retired bank employee who, at 75, was one of the oldest people turning out for a Megawati rally. He said he supports Megawati because of her famous father.

At the opposite end of the age divide, and holding up one side of a banner declaring “Megawati Or Revolution,” was 17-year-old Taufik Karuhman, a high school student. He knows nothing about Sukarno, he said, but supports Megawati because, “She’s well-educated. And she’s famous.”

The third candidate, Abdurrahman Wahid, or “Gus Dur,” is a blind Moslem cleric who leads Indonesia’s -- and the world’s -- largest Moslem organization. Wahid is an erstwhile Megawati ally, and had pledged to support her during campaigning for last June’s parliamentary elections, which Megawati’s party won.

Wahid’s candidacy is being pushed by a Moslem grouping in the 700-member assembly that wants to see Habibie removed but does not think Megawati capable of the job. The three-way race has led to confusion, with analysts divided over whether Wahid takes more votes away from Megawati or Habibie.