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Indonesia’s Habibie Withdraws

October 20, 1999 GMT

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ Indonesia’s president withdrew as a presidential candidate Wednesday, television news said, hours after lawmakers rejected a speech in which he defended his 16 months in office.

In a session that dragged from Tuesday into the early hours of Wednesday morning, the 700-member People’s Consultative Assembly also voted to recognize East Timor’s vote for independence, paving the way for the half-island territory to become the world’s newest nation.

SCTV television’s report of President B.J. Habibie’s decision not to seek re-election came a few hours before Indonesia’s legislature convened to elect a new head of state.

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Amien Rais, the speaker of the assembly, told SCTV that Habibie made the decision after meeting at his home early Wednesday with top politicians and that he would announce it to the nation before parliament reconvened later Wednesday for the election.

``You will hear the announcement this morning,″ Rais told reporters after early morning prayers at a mosque in Jakarta.

Leaders of Habibie’s Golkar Party also met privately to decide whether to replace him with another candidate.

Shortly after midnight Tuesday, the legislature rejected in a close vote Habibie’s recent ``accountability″ speech about the successes and failures of his administration. Although that did not exclude him from the election, many people had expected that his party would have no choice but to seek a replacement candidate.

After the legislature’s votes, supporters of Habibie’s rival for the presidency, Megawati Sukarnoputri, marched jubilantly through the streets of the capital, Jakarta.

``It’s the voice of the people. I’m really proud that the assembly members listened to the people’s aspirations,″ said one reveler, Mohammad Hussein.

Some members of the assembly cheered as the 355-322 vote rejecting Habibie’s speech was announced.

``Habibie’s nomination for the presidency has been wrecked,″ said Amien Rais, the assembly’s reformist chairman.

Habibie had been appointed to take over the presidency when his mentor, Suharto, stepped down last year in the face of violent protests against his rule.

Habibie’s government implemented democratic reforms, but has been plagued by economic hardship, scandals, protests and violence in some separatist sections of the country, including East Timor.

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The assembly’s decision to recognize that former Portuguese colony’s Aug. 30 vote for independence after 24 years of Indonesian rule brought some closure for East Timor’s 850,000 people.

The territory’s overwhelming vote to break free of Indonesia led to a wave of killing, looting and arson by pro-Indonesian militias and their Indonesian military allies that continued until the deployment of an Australian-led multinational peacekeeping force.

The official handover of East Timor to a U.N. transitional team is expected by the end of the year.

In Washington, the Clinton administration welcomed the independence decision and said the United States is closely watching the vote for a new president.

``The assembly’s unequivocal action shows respect for the will of the people of East Timor,″ President Clinton said in a statement. ``It is also an important step forward in Indonesia’s own democratic transformation.″

Clinton called on the United Nations to establish a transition administration in East Timor and urged Indonesia to ensure the safe return of displaced East Timorese. He said the United States will help East Timor obtain legal recognition of independence and develop the necessary government institutions.

Habibie’ withdrawal strengthened the presidential hopes of Megawati, the daughter of Indonesia’s founding leader, Sukarno.

Megawati’s party won the most _ though not a majority _ of the votes in June 7 parliamentary elections.

The only remaining contender for the presidency is Abdurrahman Wahid, the revered but ailing and nearly blind leader of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization.

The sprawling Southeast Asian nation is the world’s most populous Islamic nation, and some conservative Muslims refuse to support Megawati for the presidency because she is a woman.

If the popular Megawati loses the presidential vote, many fear the country could explode in violence. Thousands of her supporters choked Jakarta’s streets as the assembly voted on Habibie’s speech.

As each vote of the secret ballot was manually tallied with a black marker onto a white board late into the night, anxious legislators alternately cheered or gasped.

When it became clear Habibie would lose, Megawati’s supporters hollered, clapped and hugged one another.

``Praise be to Allah!″ some shouted.

Wahid’s supporters said their candidate’s chances of becoming president had strengthened in the wake of the vote.

Wednesday’s presidential vote might hinge on which candidate gains the support of Indonesia’s powerful military, whose commander, Gen. Wiranto, turned down offers of the vice presidency from Habibie and others.