Relinquishing power is rarely easy and the longer a ruler has been in office, the more difficult it becomes. Democracy allows for changes of government at regular electoral intervals, but autocracies contain no such replacement mechanisms. Indonesia is witness to the effect this can have, particularly when it is accompanied by economic turmoil. After three decades in authority over the world's fourth most populous nation, President Suharto has shown himself to be in no mood to step down. When he was re-elected to the presidency for the seventh time this spring, he clearly intended to serve out his five-year term. One member of his family even spoke of the need to stop him standing for another period in office. Despite his elevation of B. J. Habibie to the vice-presidency, the succession remains as cloudy as ever; and most rulers in Suharto's position prefer to keep it that way to avoid the emergence of a viable alternative. The prospect of an extension of the President's rule with no end in sight appears to be one motivating force in the demonstrations which have been met with tear gas and bullets this week. Since the current regime has held out no prospect of change, those who want the country to move forward politically feel the only recourse they have is to take to the streets. So far, despite one abortive attempt at talks with student leaders, the security forces know only one way to respond - with violence. The economic backdrop of the past nine months gives the protests a deeper dimension. Threatening When the International Monetary Fund stood firm on the main elements of its rescue package, social tension was inevitable. The price rises which followed the cutting of subsidies have hit ordinary Indonesians. The reaction, including outbreaks of looting and anti-Chinese violence, are now threatening the country's grassroots. Unemployment is rising fast. Middle-class Indonesians who had previously enjoyed the material benefits of an expanding economy have seen their advantages undermined by rising inflation, falling share prices and a plummeting currency. The rupiah sank below 10,000 to the dollar after Tuesday's shootings of unarmed protesters on the campus at Trisakti University. The IMF package may have been designed to keep Indonesia in the world economy, but the glittering prizes of jobs in the international corporate sector have been evaporating. Against the background of heightened expectations spawned by impressive growth in the past decade, the current combination of economic depression and political hopelessness constitutes a mix that even Asia's longest-serving ruler cannot dismiss as a passing phase. Short of reneging on the US$40 billion IMF deal - a move which the economics minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita has emphatically ruled out - there is no escaping further grassroots pain as everyday commodities become more expensive. The only glimmer of hope yesterday was his suggestion he might seek to reintroduce subsidies. Succession The plunging rupiah may eventually help exports but that will take time to feed through into the system and it will be counterbalanced by the increased price of imports, many of which are needed as raw materials for exports. The crisis requires a leadership which enjoys confidence, rather than one widely seen as clinging on to its privileges regardless of what happens to the nation at large. What is needed, above all, is a psychological change to give Indonesians reason for hope in hard times - particularly the middle classes now siding with the protesting students. As things stand today, there is no realistic alternative to Suharto. That is Indonesia's great weakness. So long as the army stays loyal and he is willing to use the repressive apparatus at his disposal to the full, the President may believe he can hang on through the turmoil. But, by doing so, he would condemn his country and its people to an even more perilous fate. Suharto, and Suharto alone, can offer what is so badly needed - a succession mechanism. This would not consist of him stepping down this month, or even this year. It would mean working out with the various national groups a means by which power could be transferred to somebody who could give the country a new start, with the degree of consensus support that such an undertaking would require. That would mean something more than the shallow loyalty parade at the 1,000-member People's Consultative Assembly. Preparing for departure may be difficult, but, in causes such as this, it is the ultimate test of statesmanship and of leadership which Indonesia desperately needs.