THE last time power changed hands in Indonesia, more than half a million people died - a disproportionate number of them ethnic Chinese - in the violence and mass killings that followed President Suharto's military takeover in 1965. Now, by insisting on clinging to power when his country has made it so clear that it is time for him to go, Asia's longest-serving leader risks provoking a repeat of that tragedy. The rioting of the past few days in Jakarta, and untold other cities throughout Indonesia, together with the death toll now running into the hundreds, has shifted the balance of the argument in favour of a change of government in Jakarta. Before this latest violence, it seemed preferable for President Suharto to remain in power because, despite the considerable inadequacies of his rule, he represented a stabilising force and, with no viable alternative in sight, his departure threatened to plunge the country into chaos. But now, with chaos already so visible on the streets of the capital, it is clear that the continued rule of a leader whom most Indonesians are no longer prepared to accept is far more likely to lead to further instability and bloodshed than the risks associated with him stepping down. Nor is it any longer the case that there is no viable alternative to the ageing ruler. Until the last few days, one of the greatest obstacles to a change of leadership was the lack of any effective opposition figures: with their most prominent personality, Megawati Sukarnoputri, an uninspiring prospect. But now her new-found alliance with influential Muslim leader Amien Rais, coupled with the establishment of an opposition 'People's Council' of leading public figures, offers a far more attractive alternative. With cracks even beginning to emerge in the ruling Golkar party, following yesterday's calls for a change of leadership from Kosgoro, the social organisation that falls within its umbrella, and similar demands by 15 retired senior army officers, there is suddenly a real opportunity of forging a national consensus behind a new leadership that could restore stability to the country. That will require the support of not merely ex-army officers but also those still in uniform, who - unlike the police - are still widely trusted by the general public and even many protesters. Their position during the recent disturbances has been ambiguous. Lieutenant General Prabowo, the president's hardline son-in-law, has taken a tough stance, threatening to deal ruthlessly with demonstrators and warning there can be no question of a change of leadership. But Armed Forces Commander General Wiranto has been much more conciliatory, repeatedly apologising for the use of live ammunition that killed six students and insisting the military understands the need for political reform. Under the constitution, the armed forces have the dual role of protecting Indonesia against both internal and external threats. Since it is Mr Suharto's refusal to step aside that has plunged Indonesia into chaos, it could be argued that he is now the greatest internal threat the nation faces. Either way, the military will shortly have to make up its mind whether to preside over the bloodshed that will be necessary to suppress the present unrest or earn widespread gratitude by assisting in a change of power. Mr Suharto must also make up his mind whether he wants to step down voluntarily or be remembered by history as the man whose refusal to do so brought chaos to his nation. The priority now must be to ensure that the inevitable change of leadership is carried out peacefully and through entirely constitutional means. That means reconvening the People's Consultative Assembly, which is the only body with the legal authority to select Indonesian leaders. It also means Mr Suharto and his Vice-President, Bacharuddin Habibie, must unequivocally announce their intention to voluntarily relinquish power as soon as the assembly has picked their successors. So far all that the President has offered are vague promises to step down 'if that is what is wanted by the people', which are too half-hearted to command any credibility and far from enough to prevent further unrest. As for yesterday's announcement of a cabinet reshuffle at some unspecified date, that is like readjusting the deck-chairs on the Titanic. Mr Suharto could still have some role to play in his nation's future. In recognition of the many achievements Indonesia has accomplished under his rule, he could be given some form of ceremonial role akin to that occupied by former President Sukarno for several years after he was deposed. But that is only if he acts promptly. Every day that Mr Suharto delays announcing his departure from the presidency - subject to it being confirmed through the constitutional process - only risks plunging Indonesia into further chaos.