Indonesia’s leading opposition figure, Megawati Sukarnoputri, called on President Suharto Saturday to step down when his term ends in March and told a chanting crowd she was ready to succeed him.
Her declaration came during a period of growing public demands for an end to Suharto’s 32-year rule as the country’s economy swirls in crisis. A crash in the currency Thursday touched off a wave of panic buying that continued Saturday.
“I hereby take this opportunity to declare my determination to become the leader of our nation and people - if this is indeed the will and consensus of the people,” she told about 500 supporters in the garden of her suburban Jakarta home.
They raised their fists and shouted, “Long live Mega!”
But the possibilities for Megawati to assume power are limited, and her speech Saturday seemed to involve protest as much as politics. In March, Suharto is expected to be reappointed by a largely handpicked assembly.
Over the last two years, Megawati - the daughter of Indonesia’s founding father, Sukarno - has become the symbol of dissatisfaction with Suharto and the focus of the nation’s suppressed grievances.
But this was the first time she put herself forward as a candidate to succeed him in a country where open challenges to Suharto are not tolerated. Suppression of her growing popularity 18 months ago led to the worst rioting in Jakarta, the capital, in decades.
Her rally was held as Indonesian officials sought to calm fears of food shortages that have been spurred by the worst economic crisis since Suharto took office in 1965.
After three decades of almost-uninterrupted growth in the world’s fourth-largest nation in population, economists predict a recession this year, along with widespread bankruptcies, huge unemployment and a likelihood of social unrest.
“We have more than enough rice,” declared a headline in the daily Jakarta Post, as people continued for the third day to clear shelves of foodstuffs, fearing shortages, price rises and possible rationing.
“We are asking people to remain calm,” the newspaper quoted the production and distribution minister, Hartarto, as saying. Many Indonesians use only one name.
“The government is working hard to take care of the needs of the people for basic consumer goods across the country.”
Indonesia’s economic slump, which began last fall, caused a panic last week when the currency tumbled after the announcement of an annual budget that was seen as failing to address the country’s urgent needs.
This raised fears that in response to government inaction, the International Monetary Fund might withdraw a $40 billion rescue package it organized last October.
Many Indonesians took hope on Friday from the news that President Clinton had spoken by telephone with Suharto and was sending a delegation to Jakarta led by Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.
The two top officials of the IMF were also on their way to Indonesia, joining the attempt to shore up confidence and halt the country’s downward spiral.
The current crisis comes before a session in March of a People’s Consultative Assembly that is expected to name Suharto to a seventh five-year term - although he has not yet formally declared his intention to stay on.
Megawati is not legally the leader of a political party and is therefore not eligible to be chosen by this assembly, and it was not clear how she could succeed Suharto.
Nor was it clear how seriously she intended to push forward with her declaration of readiness to lead the nation.
If Suharto were to step aside, his successor is more likely to come from within his government’s power structure, including the politically influential military.