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Wednesday, 20 October, 1999, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
Habibie bows out
Introducing democratic elections was BJ Habibie's proudest achievement
Introducing democratic elections was perhaps BJ Habibie's proudest achievement
By Jakarta correspondent Jonathan Head

BJ Habibie's failure to win a new mandate as Indonesia's president followed strong criticism both inside and outside the country's parliament over his failure to curb corruption and his handling of the crisis in East Timor. But BJ Habibie cut an unconvincing presidential figure ever since he stepped into the shoes of his mentor last May.

Indonesia Flashpoints
And during his 17 months in office Indonesia has been wracked by ethnic and religious clashes, corruption scandals and the violence in East Timor.

The eccentric German-trained aerospace engineer owed his political position entirely to the patronage of President Suharto, who was forced from power after ruling Indonesia single-handed for more than three decades.

So even when he became president, Mr Habibie was sanguine about his chances.

Swimming with sharks

"You know, if you are swimming and you are surrounded by sharks, you have to swim, otherwise you will be eaten by the sharks. And I'm not going to be eaten by the shark. I am going to swim and bring my country out of this problem," he said at the time.

However, in the chaos of post-Suharto Indonesia the sharks did close in.

Habibie listens to the day's debate
Habibie's close ties to the old regime damned him in the eyes of many
In the capital, the army cracked down on student protesters, making Mr Habibie deeply unpopular.

The troops were also called on to deal with unrest across the archipelago that at times threatened to tear the country apart.

His decision to let East Timor go turned into a public relations disaster.

Some of his close associates were involved in an embarrassing banking scandal.

And his proudest achievement - holding Indonesia's first free elections in more than 40 years - also exposed his political weakness.

His party, Golkar, which had won every election since the 1960s, was pushed into second place, well behind the Democratic Party of Struggle led by popular opposition figure, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

It is his close ties to the old regime that held President Habibie back in his quest for legitimacy and the reason why so many Indonesians argued that he should not get another term in office.

And his failure to stand as president for a second term, means that history will show he brought Indonesia to the gates of democracy.

See also:

11 Oct 99 | Asia-Pacific
12 Oct 99 | Profiles
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