President Suharto's enforced departure after 32 years in power marks the start of a new era for the world's fourth most populous nation. After struggling for so long to cling to office, it is understandable that many in his country and overseas should be suspicious as to whether the ageing leader has really gone, or plans to continue exercising his rule from behind the scenes. Such suspicions were fuelled by the passing of the presidency to his friend and long-time confidant Bacharuddin Habibie, with the suggestion that this widely-disliked technocrat will continue to serve out the rest of his term in office, which does not end until 2003. But as shown by yesterday's calls for Mr Suharto to stand trial, the situation in Jakarta has changed so dramatically that there is no longer any realistic prospect of him being able to stay on as the power behind the throne, even if that is what he intends. Nor should anyone expect President Habibie to remain in power for long. He has no power base save for the former President's support, and this is now far more of a liability than an asset. At a time when Mr Suharto has been forced from office in disgrace it is easy to forget the departed leader's considerable achievements during his three decades in power. He brought a long period of stability to this sprawling and ethnically diverse nation, and presided over the reconstruction of its economy, with impressive growth rates being recorded until last year's regional financial crisis. But Mr Suharto also made serious errors. Foremost amongst these was his insistence that stability could only be maintained by severely restricting civil liberties and stamping out all viable alternative political forces. That was a mistake for which his country must now pay dearly since it inhibited the emergence of any popular opposition figures and means there is no civilian with the stature to assume the presidency and lead Indonesia towards recovery. Qualified The one person who originally seemed qualified, Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia's founding president Sukarno, has proved her unsuitability by the non-existent role she has played in recent events. Doubts also surround Muslim leader Amien Rais. He has played his cards skilfully over the last week, courting international media attention, and being portrayed as a driving force behind Mr Suharto's downfall. But inside Indonesia his reputation is more mixed, with several members of his recently-formed People's Council swiftly declaring they had nothing to do with it. Nor has he hesitated to court support in the past by pandering to popular prejudices against the ethnic Chinese and he has also made unkind remarks about the country's Christians. Mr Rais insists he has changed since then and now recognises the important role both communities have to play. Nevertheless, it is hard to see the Chinese, upon whom Indonesia's economy depends, being encouraged to return should he assume power. Nor would it be right for a nation which also includes more than 200 other minorities to be ruled by such an overtly Muslim leader. Respected This lack of attractive opposition figures is why the students, whose protests toppled the former president, were yesterday divided over who should replace him, with some even proposing military chief General Wiranto as their preferred option. That is a tribute to the moderate image the army has managed to project during the recent crisis and a recognition that it is one of the few cohesive forces holding Indonesia together now Mr Suharto has gone. Although the precise part the military played in yesterday's events may never be known, it seems likely it participated in this palace coup, judging from Mr Suharto's failure to acknowledge or even shake hands with the army officers who flanked him as he made his resignation speech. It has to be accepted that the Indonesian military will now play a major part in the succession process. It may even be willing to tolerate Mr Habibie for a while. But this is likely to be a matter of months at most, given his history of poor relations with the army. When the time comes for a real successor to be chosen, it is to be hoped General Wiranto will restrain any personal ambitions and allow this to be decided through democratic elections, perhaps resulting in some form of collective government in which the military could retain an advisory role. Its constitutional role in protecting the nation against internal and external threats is already respected by most citizens. But if the military now acts as the guiding force behind Indonesia's transformation into a fully-fledged democracy then that respect will be multiplied many times over.