Reluctant politician to Indonesia’s next president

All he had wanted was to command the armed forces. Instead, Bambang finds himself the commander of the nation.

It was a twist of fate that led to a change in fortunes.

Five years ago, then three-star general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono yearned for his fourth star and to be Indonesia’s armed forces chief. But then newly appointed president Abdurrahman Wahid thought otherwise.

Instead, he offered Mr Bambang a Cabinet post, something he accepted reluctantly in return for early retirement from the military. It did not have a bitter end, however.

This paved the way for his entry into Indonesian politics that led him this week to the nation’s highest office.

He told The Straits Times in a recent interview: ‘It is the dream of any officer to be commander of the armed forces. I thought I could have made a difference if I was given that job.

‘Today, I find myself with the chance of leading the country. It is an even bigger challenge being commander of the whole nation.’

For him, the presidency is the prize. And he has the credentials for it.

Mr Bambang’s star shone from a very young age.

The son of a retired Javanese lieutenant, he graduated top of his 1973 military academy class with a record number of merit medals.

Three years later, he was one of the few sent to Fort Benning in the United States for airborne ranger training.

His military standing increased when he married the daughter of the late lieutenant-general Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, the special forces commander and confidant of former president Suharto.

The classroom was clearly his forte. In 1991, he attended the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. That same year he earned a master’s degree in management.

But he was no stranger to combat operations. He served two tours of duty in East Timor early in his career.

In the early 90s, he headed the United Nations military observers’ contingent in Bosnia before returning to Indonesia to hold key command appointments in Jakarta and South Sumatra. He reached the peak of his military career in 1998 when he was appointed chief of territorial affairs.

But in 1999, the tug-of-war by rivals for power and influence in a new government under Mr Abdurrahman forced him to leave the military prematurely to become energy minister.

Speaking to The Straits Times then, with his wife Kristiani Herrawati by his side at the dinner table in his Bogor residence, he reflected his deep disappointment with the decision: ‘Why did this happen to me? I don’t know what this will all mean. The military has always been my life. I am heading into the unknown.’

It marked his fiery baptism into politics.

He took up the post that he held for less than a year before being moved up to security czar. And months later, he was axed by the president for refusing to back his emergency decree.

But he survived to run for the vice-presidential election in the National Assembly in 2001 after Mr Abdurrahman’s ouster.

He crashed out in the first round, but found consolation in being co-opted into the Megawati administration as security czar again.

That brief turbulent period – together with his experience in government – has taught him a few valuable lessons in politics.

For one, surviving the rough and tumble of Indonesian politics gave him confidence and zeal to pursue an even greater goal – the presidency.

He began planning for it in early 2002.

With the help of a core group of advisers – such as ex-PDI-P stalwarts Heru Lelono and Suko Sudarso, economist Joyo Winoto and former Indonesian ambassador to Russia Rachmat Witoelar – he built up a network of non-governmental organisations and volunteer networks that proved critical to his victory.

But it was also all about timing and opportunity.

Appearing to dither at times over his political ambition, Mr Bambang could not oversell himself for the presidency without appearing to be disloyal to President Megawati Sukarnoputri while still serving in her Cabinet.

Indeed, he was even prepared to contemplate the vice-presidency under her.

But as one of his top aides disclosed, Ms Megawati did not make any overtures to him.

So, he was forced to do the inevitable: challenge her.

As he worked behind the scenes, the palace saw him as an emerging threat and sought to cut him out from policymaking.

His trusted friend, Lieutenant-General Sudi Silalahi, who served as his secretary when he was security chief, launched a pre-emptive strike by questioning Ms Megawati’s decision.

It triggered a chain of events – which included the wild outburst of the President’s husband Taufik Kiemas – that catapultedthe general to the fore of a popularity contest.

‘It was a stroke of good luck that we got the adversary to do our bidding,’ noted one of Mr Bambang’s aides.

‘But it was all about dogged planning and precision. This man is a perfectionist. He wants to study all his options very carefully before making a decision. He does not rush blindly into anything.’

This does have one major drawback for his critics, who charge that he can appear indecisive at times.

A former general who has known Mr Bambang since he was in his 30s explained: ‘He is different from some Indonesian generals who can be very impulsive in making decisions.

‘For some of them, it is either option A or B. But Bambang prefers to hear all the options, even if there are five of them. He is a very safe player.’

Some even might describe Mr Bambang as a benevolent autocrat.

His ideological thinking lies between two of Indonesia’s former leaders – Sukarno and Suharto.

Sukarno, he notes, had fire in the belly and instilled national pride. Suharto stood for precious order and stability.

For him, the Pancasila state doctrine and the preservation of Indonesia’s territorial integrity are non-negotiable.

Mr Bambang explains: ‘We need to balance liberty with security. What is the point of having democracy if there is no stability?’

The conservative streak can of course be traced to his military background.

Indeed, former generals surround him. In his campaign team alone, there were 15 of them.

But he is no ultra-nationalist.

His overseas education gave him a broad view of the world and made him one of the leading reformers in the armed forces.

Indeed, despite his emotional attachment to the military, he is very much an outsider with the current top brass who are less reform-minded.

The reformist drive is one of the major factors explaining his mass appeal. The tectonic plate has shifted in the country. Indonesians voted him in because they wanted change over the old established forces.

With his imposing frame and clean-cut good looks, the telegenic general was able to build up a persona with wide appeal across the bright lights of major cities and the shimmering paddies of Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi.

Steeped in Javanese culture and tradition, his presidential stature grew even more as he avoided direct confrontation with his opponents and sought reconciliation with them.

Given his roots in East Java, the home base of the 40-million-strong Nadhlatul Ulama, he had little difficulty appealing to religious clerics and their followers who paid little attention to a smear campaign against his Islamic credentials.

Will his mass appeal hold? Much depends on whether he can meet people’s expectations.

Another key challenge for him over the next five years will be to balance the reformist impulse with his conservative mindset.

On this score, the most significant issue that will test the 55-year-old soldier is how he deals with the military.

Will he give in to the hawkish generals or will he push it on the path of reform?

He faces a host of other pressing challenges: the war on terrorism, fighting separatist tendencies in Aceh and Papua and bringing peace to conflict-prone regions such as Poso and Maluku.

On the economic front, his priority will be to deal with the budget next year and thorny issue of fuel subsidies.

His reformist inclination will also be measured in how he deals with the age-old issue of corruption.

For a retired general, Mr Bambang now faces the toughest battle yet.

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