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An unlikely reformer is remaking Indonesia

In election rules and possible autonomy for East Timor, Habibie movesrather boldly.

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Indonesia's president, B.J. Habibie, appears in a hurry to join the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev as one of the great - and unlikely - reformers of his time.

Yesterday Indonesia's parliament adopted election laws, drafted by Mr. Habibie's staff, that should enable his 200 million people to vote in the first democratic elections in 40 years. Just a day earlier, the mercurial president said that he might ask the new parliament to consider granting independence to East Timor, half of a small island occupied by Indonesian troops in 1975.

These bold moves - reminiscent of Mr. Gorbachev's decision to introduce democracy to the former Soviet Union and let Central and Eastern Europe break away - follow Habibie's release of political prisoners, abolition of press censorship, and a host of other political reforms in his first eight months in office.

Like Gorbachev and F.W. de Klerk, the former South African president who dismantled apartheid, Habibie emerged from the old regime and was widely distrusted when he first took office and talked reform in May 1998, following the sudden fall of President Suharto. Like his fellow reformers, Habibie risks going too fast - and going down with the regime he is dismantling. But some believe his willingness to reform may create enough goodwill to get him reelected president by parliament.

Responding on East Timor

His policy shift on East Timor, believed to be his own initiative, was one of the most drastic moves Habibie has made so far. Occupation of the territory, and killing of as many as a third of its 1 million people, had long made Indonesia a pariah in the international community. The UN never recognized annexation and is brokering talks between Indonesia and Portugal, East Timor's former colonial power.

Last year Habibie surprised by offering autonomy to East Timor but rejected calls for independence or a referendum among the Timorese on the issue. Now aides say he still favors autonomy but was willing to let go of the territory all along.


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