JAKARTA, Indonesia — People were burning cars in the streets again, but there was a hush in the living room of B.J. Habibie, the sprightly enigma who, for a bewildering moment not long ago, found himself the most powerful person in the land.

"You should understand my background," said Habibie, a tiny, animated man. "I am not a politician; I am not even interested in politics. And suddenly I had to take over."

That was in May 1998, when former President Suharto suddenly resigned and, without a single word to him, left Indonesia in the hands of his vice president, Habibie, an aircraft engineer who was one of the most spectacularly unprepared people ever to lead a nation.

Over the next 17 months, Habibie was challenged from all sides as Indonesia began to redefine itself. But he pursued a remarkably steady course toward democracy, dismantling the dictatorship that his predecessor and friend had painstakingly put in place during 32 years in power.

Habibie freed the press, the labor unions and the political parties and began the slow process of pulling the military out of politics.

Then, in what he calls one of his proudest achievements, he became the first Indonesian president ever to be voted out of office — replaced last October by an equally eccentric leader, the voluble, half-blind Muslim cleric Abdurrahman Wahid.

Now Habibie, 64, has less power than he has had since becoming Suharto's minister for science and technology more than 20 years ago.

Last week he opened the Habibie Center, a political research institute that he is mostly financing himself. But he has quickly become an irrelevance in Indonesia's political scene.

Unlike Suharto, who had been the target of protests last week by rioters demanding that he be put on trial for corruption, Habibie arouses few emotions. While many analysts say he had little choice but to allow the new freedoms that were being demanded on the streets, Habibie has insisted that he was a heartfelt liberal who learned his democratic lessons during decades of residence in Germany.

Habibie describes himself as a man who threw a stone into a pond and set off waves of turbulence. The process he set in motion, he said, was a shift from "unipolar" to "multipolar" power — a difficult transition for a vastly diverse nation of many islands and more than 200 million people that had learned to submit to a single central leader.