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Habibie’s Election Bid Falters

October 15, 1999

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ Riot police used tear gas and batons to disperse thousands of anti-government demonstrators Friday as harsh criticism mounted of President B.J. Habibie, eroding his chances of retaining his post in a vote next week.

About 30 protesters were hospitalized and 10 policeman were injured Friday in clashes that closed Jakarta’s business district for hours. The turmoil raised the prospect of further instability in Indonesia, already reeling from political unrest and its worst economic crisis in decades.

Habibie frowned and took notes in the national legislature Friday night as disgruntled members of the 700-member People’s Consultative Assembly assailed his 16 months in office. The assembly, Indonesia’s highest lawmaking body, will vote on Indonesia’s next head of state on Wednesday.

Within the next few days, the assembly will also vote whether to accept or reject the speech Habibie made Thursday night defending his record. If they reject the speech, Habibie will have little choice but to withdraw his nomination for the presidency.

The session, which continued into Saturday morning, was evidence of the difficulty the world’s fourth most populous nation is having making a transition to democracy after decades of authoritarian rule under former President Suharto.

Open debate is a new experience for most Indonesians, who were accustomed to Suharto’s strict control over political activity. He ensured the assembly was nothing more than a rubber stamp for his 32-year rule.

Habibie, Suharto’s protege, is one of three presidential candidates. The others are Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of founding President Sukarno, and Abdurrahman Wahid of the Muslim-oriented National Awakening Party.

Habibie offered an impassioned defense of his work to the legislators Thursday night, declaring that he introduced democracy and saved Indonesia’s battered economy. He also blamed past authoritarian leaders for leaving him the ``gigantic task″ of solving Indonesia’s problems.

``As a simple human being, I realize that the whole crisis ... cannot be fixed in only 521 days,″ he said.

But when the assembly reconvened Friday, speaker after speaker attacked him.

``Habibie is Suharto’s crony and Suharto’s shadow,″ said Zulvan Lindan of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, led by Megawati.

Even Habibie’s own Golkar Party, which nominated him for the presidency, questioned his handling of two key matters _ the dropping of a corruption investigation against Suharto, and the East Timor crisis. Critics say Suharto, his family and friends amassed fortunes during his rule.

``How serious is the government about dealing with graft?″ said Prio Budi Santos, the leader of Golkar’s lawmakers, during the nationally televised proceedings.

Habibie’s decision to allow an independence referendum in East Timor led to a secession vote, and pro-Jakarta militias went on a rampage. International peacekeepers were sent in to stop the bloodshed _ but the effective loss of the province rankles many Indonesians.

Another opposition speaker wept as he criticized Habibie for allowing troops to shoot and kill dozens of separatists in another violence-wracked corner of Indonesia _ Aceh province.

Hours earlier, up to 5,000 protesters blocked Jakarta’s main boulevard near parliament and the capital’s luxury hotels.

Demanding that Habibie quit, they taunted police and threw gasoline bombs and rocks. Riot squads flushed students out of a nearby university and forced the crowd about a half-mile down the debris-littered road.

Hundreds of troops and police stood guard at the parliament.

``Habibie must resign or it will be very dangerous here,″ said a protester who identified himself by the single name of Dedi.

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