Yudhoyono treads the neutral line to stay relevant

Yudhoyono treads the neutral line to stay relevant
Former Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Indonesian politics may be entering a fascinating new era, with the pending emergence of a neutral bloc that will act as the balance of power between the ruling coalition of President Joko Widodo and the opposition of losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto who forms the majority in Parliament.

The floating bloc revolves around former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's Democrat Party, which has 61 seats in the House. It has always taken a more centrist position; but now Dr Yudhoyono is calling the former majority party a "non-aligned movement" that will presumably judge each issue on its merits.

This has never happened before in the 16 years since Indonesia embarked on democratic rule. But it clearly appeals to Dr Yudhoyono because it allows him the flexibility he craves and, more importantly, makes him relevant in the overall scheme of things.

Now, he is using it to win Parliament's approval of a presidential decree he issued in the waning days of his second and final term. The decree is to rescind the unpopular Local Election Law, which ends direct elections for governors, district chiefs and mayors.

In what seems to have been a gross miscalculation on Dr Yudhoyono's part, a walkout by 124 Democrat legislators allowed the legislation to pass in the old House of Representatives in September, in one of its last acts.

What made it so surprising was that polls had showed 80 per cent of respondents opposed the new law. It had been concocted by the Home Affairs Ministry - apparently with then President Yudhoyono's tacit approval - on the grounds that local elections cost too much and were subject to corruption. Mr Fadli Zon, vice-chairman of Mr Prabowo's Great Indonesian Movement Party (Gerindra) and now Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, put the bill for the five-year election cycle at 59.5 trillion rupiah (S$6 billion).

Political parties don't like direct elections because they have little control over the process. But that's the very reason why Indonesians, who have a healthy disrespect for their corrupt politicians, saw the end of direct elections as a step back for democracy.

Dr Yudhoyono's hastily issued decree sought to regain lost ground. Now, with his legacy still foremost in his mind, he appears to be taking that further and trying to position himself as the wise statesman who can be called on to keep Parliament on track.

In interviews since stepping down, he has made it clear that while joining the government is still not on the cards, falling lock, stock and barrel into Mr Prabowo's Red and White Coalition isn't either. He says he wants leverage - and that's not bad news for Mr Joko.

While the President may have to make legislative concessions, they are likely to be more reasonable than the demands of opposition leaders Prabowo and newly re-elected Golkar Party chairman Aburizal Bakrie, even if some of the hostility has gone from their rhetoric.

Then there is the National Mandate Party (PAN). Its prospective new leader, Mr Zulkifli Hasan, has said he will join the government if he becomes chairman at the party's scheduled convention in February or March. That would give Mr Joko a 16-seat advantage.

But if there is resistance from outgoing chairman Hatta Rajasa, who was Mr Prabowo's running mate, PAN could become part of the floating bloc too. After all, Mr Hatta's daughter is married to Dr Yudhoyono's son, Democrat secretary-general Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono.

As for Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) chairman Megawati Sukarnoputri, she is still carrying a grudge over Dr Yudhoyono deposing her as president in 2004, an act she has always described as a betrayal. She has strongly opposed the Democrats joining the ruling coalition.

Some sources claim she did appear to relent at one crucial point, but the then President and his aides had switched off their phones. True or not, after a recent meeting with Dr Yudhoyono, Mr Joko hinted that the election issue could serve as another entry point. But Dr Yudhoyono favours neutrality. "Just like in the Cold War, we had the Western bloc and the Eastern bloc," he said in a lecture at Jakarta's Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University two days later. "Then there was the Non-Aligned Movement."

Ms Megawati's father, president Sukarno, was one of the global movement's six founding members when it was formed in Belgrade in 1961 at the height of the Cold War. The country has sought to pursue a neutral foreign policy ever since.

The Democrat Party did throw its support behind Mr Prabowo in the presidential election, but it has so far declined to sign an agreement with Gerindra, Golkar and the Prosperity and Justice Party to form a "permanent coalition".

Obsessed with the Javanese concept of consensus, Dr Yudhoyono has called on the two sides of the House to end their rivalry. That stands in contrast to the conventional view that a genuine democracy has a functioning and hopefully constructive opposition, with alternative policies and sound arguments to back them.

The fear, of course, is that with the majority it enjoys for now, Mr Prabowo's coalition will be more destructive than constructive, seeking to foil Mr Joko at every turn, and even to impeach him if the opportunity arises.

Interestingly, senior presidential adviser Luhut Panjaitan appeared to dismiss that scenario when he addressed the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last week. "Relations with Parliament will be better next year," he said. "I don't see a threat any more because they know the President is very firm... It is not going to be a big issue."

With the Democrats back to supporting direct elections, January's vote on the presidential decree to quash the unpopular Local Election Law looks to be a foregone conclusion.

But the next real test of the opposition's intentions is likely to come the following month when Parliament debates sweeping revisions to Dr Yudhoyono's 2014 Budget, including a proposal to establish a fixed fuel subsidy.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com


This article was first published on Dec 16, 2014.
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