Of all the world leaders, only Fidel Castro of Cuba was already in charge when Suharto pushed aside President Sukarno in 1967. Suharto still looks healthy and works as hard as ever, but even his most fervent supporters concede that he will not be around forever.
But there is no obvious successor. Suharto has never nominated the same candidate for the vice presidency twice, careful to keep anyone from threatening his stature. While it may be only days before his ritual reelection in March when Suharto picks a vice president, his palace has become a quiet battleground as ministers, generals, and even his relatives vie for his favors.
Some believe that Suharto, a retired general, favors General Hartono, a former Army chief and current minister of information. He is respected by parts of the Army and some Muslim leaders, and is close to Suharto's eldest daughter.
Yusuf Habibie, an extrovert minister of research and technology with a penchant for interventionist economic policy, popularly known as Habibienomics, is a longtime protege of Suharto. But his mishandling of several expensive prestige projects may have lowered his standing with the president, and he's not popular with the military. "He is a man with a vision but not a very strong leader," says Hajriyanto Thohari, a member of parliament.
One alternative to Habibie in the ranks of interventionists, Ginandjar Kartasasmita, has apparently persuaded some powerful retired generals to back him. He occasionally acts as Suharto's spokesman but is not particularly popular with anyone.
An all-in-the-family possibility is the president's eldest daughter, Siti Hardianti Rukmana, who has taken a prominent political role since her mother's death in April. The unofficial first lady at official events, she also plays a prominent role in the government party Golkar and holds a seat in parliament. Insiders say it is unlikely the Army would accept her directly.
The current vice president, Try Sutrisno, may be a candidate that many, including Suharto's fiercest critics, would accept. He hardly ever speaks in public, and is rarely ever controversial. He portrays himself as a devout Muslim and he differs from potential rivals in that he has not been smeared by corruption scandals. His official portrait, which adorns all government buildings bears a suspicious resemblance to Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, who is still very popular.
In fact, Sukarno's legacy has mustered support for his daughter, Megawati, a soft-spoken woman whose call for an end to corruption catapulted her to the leadership of one of Indonesia's two legal opposition parties. But government officials engineered her removal last year. Lacking a clear agenda and too cautious to stir up her supporters, Mrs. Megawati has been effectively sidelined since then.
One last player to watch is Amien Rais, a college professor educated at the University of Chicago, who heads one of the country's largest Muslim organizations. But he has also tested Suharto's patience, even toying publicly with running for president, and his supporters fear that Mr. Amien could share Megawati's fate if he speaks up too loudly.