Suharto, Marcos Took Different Paths at End of Road


When the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos was forced from power in 1986, his rule came to a halt with a tense political drama featuring rigged elections, betrayal and a palace coup d’etat. Marcos and his family fled in the dark of night, transported by two U.S. Air Force helicopters, as crowds surged around Malacanang Palace.

Many people were expecting a Philippine-style ending to the fall of Indonesia’s President Suharto this week because he and Marcos shared many political traits.

Marcos was elected president in 1965. Suharto first came into prominence in a 1965 military coup. Both won the Cold War affection of the U.S. because of their fervent anti-communism. Both used state resources to enrich their families. For a time, they shared the stage as Asia’s most powerful strongmen.


But, except for the chorus of student-led popular opposition, the fall of the Houses of Marcos and Suharto could not have been more different.

While Marcos left power kicking and screaming in the copters of a foreign power, Suharto walked away quietly, his wealthy family rumored to be already safely ensconced in foreign countries. So far, he has been spared the violent end or life of exile reserved for many despots.

Because of the tanks and armored vehicles around the Indonesian presidential palace here, Suharto was spared the siege that forced Marcos’ flight. While the Philippine army rebelled--led in mutiny by the country’s defense chief and top general--the Indonesian army never publicly denounced the outgoing leader. If anything, Gen. Wiranto, the Indonesian armed forces chief, appeared more nervous than Suharto when he made a statement after his leader’s resignation.

Perhaps the main difference in the way the two leaders left is that Marcos was under pressure from a popular opposition, led by Corazon Aquino, widow of Philippine opposition leader Benigno S. Aquino Jr.

Corazon Aquino had competed head-to-head against Marcos in national elections, in which he declared himself winner. But she cried foul and launched her famed “People Power” movement that rallied Filipinos behind her.

Suharto, unlike Marcos, was permitted the luxury of naming his immediate successor, B. J. Habibie, his longtime friend and the vice president. And while some credible opponents to Suharto emerged in the campaign to oust him--most notably Muslim activist Amien Rais--there was no figure with Aquino’s stature for Indonesians to rally around and to usher in true change. The anti-Suharto movement was forced to focus on the vague, general notion of “reforms.”


The leadership void was obvious Thursday in interviews with the anti-Suharto camp after the longtime Indonesian leader’s resignation.

Maxi Wayonkere, 41, a manager with a company specializing in small loans for motorcycle purchases, showed up at the national parliament Thursday to thank the students there for their vanguard role in Suharto’s ouster.

Echoing others, Wayonkere traced his dismay with Suharto directly to his own pocketbook. Since the Asian economic crisis hit Indonesia, Wayonkere said his company’s motorcycle sales had dropped from 30,000 a year to practically zero.

But, happy as he was over Suharto’s exit, Wayonkere decried the lack of leadership in his country. “What we need now is one man to make us a nation again,” he said. “Unfortunately, we don’t know who that will be.”