A president's unfulfilled promise

It was supposed to be all mapped out. A regal Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono cruising implacably towards the end of his 10-year presidency, anointing a successor at a grand inauguration ceremony - and then slipping into the political twilight as a wise elder statesman.

So much for well-laid plans. Battered by corruption cases - and with even the military joining in the general criticism - the Indonesian President's majority Democrat Party is in tatters and already looking like an also-ran in next April's legislative elections.

That Dr Yudhoyono has been a disappointment is an understatement. Given the overwhelming mandate he enjoyed on the back of two presidential elections, his has been an administration of timid decision-making and missed opportunity. His defenders point to the fact that he has maintained stability. His detractors say that is not enough for a country with so much promise, even if it has been blunted by corruption, self-interest and poor governance.

Once-muted criticism is now in full flower, focusing particularly on Dr Yudhoyono's failure to rein in religious intolerance and to ram through key reforms that among other things would challenge the power of an entrenched bureaucracy.

More recently, with the economy weakening and balance-of- payment concerns growing, he has presided over a range of ill- conceived nationalist policies that have sent shock waves through the mining, oil and gas and agriculture sectors.

"I'm afraid there's no big economic policy," says one senior government official, who points out that the Cabinet is slowly disintegrating as elections loom and Dr Yudhoyono relies ever more heavily on his in-law, Chief Economic Minister Hatta Rajasa.

Pointing to a recent period when there was only a single full Cabinet meeting in five weeks, he says Dr Yudhoyono has been too preoccupied with party affairs, including what seems like the pointless task of finding a presidential candidate.

With the Democrats now hovering below 10 per cent in most polls, the winner from among the 11 diverse candidates in the US- style primary race will probably never make it to the starting post.

"What we have now is a President whose only interest is securing himself beyond 2014," says the official. But that's the problem. With 11 months to go, he has no guarantees the past won't come back to haunt him after retirement.

Despite a lack of evidence, political rivals continue to question the motives for the 2008 Bank Century bailout, believing it will lead to criminal action against those in the leadership who are seen to have benefited in one way or another.

Vice-President Boediono is more in the firing line, but Dr Yudhoyono must also be feeling the heat. Similarly with the Hambalang graft scandal, which could still end up uncomfortably close to home for his son, Democrat secretary-general Edhie Baskoro.

Meanwhile, the President has found the time to write a book, Selalu Ada Pilihan (There Is Always A Choice), due out next month, which will discuss his personal experiences and answer his ever- growing army of critics.

He promises it will be "full of surprises" and says he is writing it himself "as my right of reply to rumours, critics, scorn and even slander during my leadership".

Only a week before the book announcement, Army Strategic Reserve commander Lieutenant-General Gatot Nurmantyo broke a decade of military silence by expressing doubts about the current course of an "empty democracy".

"Our democracy at the moment is populist and led by forces through means of a vote," he declared, in what could perhaps be taken as implied criticism of Dr Yudhoyono's rule. "The many are not necessarily right."

What made it more surprising is that Lt-Gen Nurmantyo, 53, has only been in charge of Indonesia's main combat force since June, after serving as governor of the military academy, East Java regional commander and head of the army's training command.

He could have chosen a better stage than a gathering of the thuggish, right-wing Pancasila Youth organisation, but he was making the point that Pancasila, the state ideology, was not being adhered to as a national unifying doctrine.

Most Indonesian commentators saw it as a blatant attempt by the army to meddle in politics, without considering that Lt-Gen Nurmantyo's criticism may not have been an attack on democracy itself, but on the way it is being practised.

Interestingly, a few days later the prestigious National Defence Institute issued a report saying the quality of governance across Indonesia was in a "fragile" state because of institutional and cultural weaknesses.

The military has always had a jaundiced view of civilian politicians, something that is now widely shared by most Indonesians, tired of the corruption and influence peddling that bedevils the country's Parliament and politics in general.

"There is a clear distinction between the army being not involved in day-to-day politics and its obligation to be concerned with its role in affairs of state," says former defence minister Juwono Sudarsono.

"Where affairs of state are concerned, the army must step in to prevent changes in the state ideology," he says. "In the current lexicon, even the most rabidly democratic activist understands that in the worst circumstances the army is the final arbiter."

A retired general himself, Dr Yudhoyono must be wondering what compelled the military to air its concerns so openly and what, if anything, it may portend for next year's election season.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com


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