Indonesia's leader races to save direct elections and his legacy

JAKARTA - Indonesia's outgoing president returned home early on Tuesday, cutting short an overseas farewell tour to try and overturn legislation ending direct elections for local leaders.

Widely praised for fostering a thriving democracy in his 10 years in office, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's legacy, already tainted by a series of graft scandals, has taken a further hit after his ruling party failed to prevent the bill from passing in parliament.

Stocks have come under pressure and the rupiah has tumbled to a seven-month low following parliament's action, which president-elect Joko Widodo criticised as a major step backwards for democracy.

Yudhoyono will hand over power on Oct. 20. "We will strive to save direct regional elections and there is a plan B that we will finalize later today. Our interest is only that our democracy remains for our people," Yudhoyono told reporters after landing back in Jakarta from a near two-week long trip to Portugal, the United States and Japan.

Indonesia introduced direct elections for regional leaders in 2005, allowing the emergence of a new breed of politician free of links to the political elite, with Widodo being the best-known example.

But direct elections in Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest economy and the world's third largest democracy, have also proven to be costly, and in many cases, corrupt.

Before leaving for his trip, Yudhoyono spoke out in favour of retaining direct elections and the bill looked destined to be rejected.

But the legislation was able to be passed after his ruling party decided not to vote and instead walked out of the session to protest not being able to add amendments to the bill.

Yudhoyono said he was informed by the head of the Constitutional Court that he did not have the authority to block the legislation, which will become law in 30 to 60 days with or without president's approval.

Yudhoyono's Democratic Party, along with non-government groups, are expected to launch legal challenges to the bill.

"The president will go through other ways within the constitutional framework to be able to find the best solution,"presidential spokesman Julian Pasha told reporters.

The mishandling of the situation has sparked only a few street protests in Jakarta and other major cities, with most of the criticism taking place on social media. Hashtags using Yudhoyono's initials #ShameOnYouSBY and #ShamedByYouAgainSBY feature at the top of Twitter's global trending lists. "(Yudhoyono) will be known not as a reformer or a democrat but as someone who let down the people of Indonesia," said Robert Endi Jaweng, executive director of Regional Autonomy Watch, a local non-governmental organisation.