Bambang must now deliver the goods
Can President-elect meet expectations of Indonesians who are fed up with corruption and want jobs and security?
In the end, even the old established forces of Indonesian politics could not defeat him.
Riding on the mood for change, former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono scored a landslide victory over his rival Megawati Sukarnoputri and the illusionary grand coalition of political parties that backed her.
Winning by a huge margin of 24 million votes will certainly strengthen Mr Bambang’s hand in dealing with some of Indonesia’s most chronic problems.
But along with this mandate comes his toughest battle: Meeting unrealistic expectations from Indonesians who are fed up with graft and ineffective leadership, and are crying for immediate results.
The 55-year-old former soldier presented few distinct policies during the election campaign but voters were impressed by his grasp of issues facing the country.
His clean and honest image certainly counted for his immense popularity at the polls – and may well hold aloft the Bambang bubble in the short term.
But substance more than style will count for his survival. All eyes will be on how he deals with a range of problems that his predecessors could not resolve.
Observer Arbi Sanit of the University of Indonesia told The Straits Times: ‘Bambang has been a phenomenon. But now, he will have to live up to his promises. Indonesians will judge him by what he does, not how he looks or talks.
‘He cannot survive just on the cult of his personality. The poor especially will want to know whether his leadership will give them rice. If he can feed them, then he will last the five years as a popular president.’
Clearly, the most pressing issue for him is turning around a moribund economy. It is here that Indonesians will want instant results as many dream of the good old Suharto days when jobs were plenty and prices low.
Mr Bambang has talked of higher economic growth of at least 7 per cent as he pins his hopes on foreign investors pumping money into Indonesia. He also wants to support small and medium-sized enterprises and to create jobs for the more than 10 million unemployed in the country.
At the same time, he has had little qualms in pledging that there will be no fuel price hikes if he takes over office.
Mr Bambang will also need to tackle security challenges – of which growing Islamic extremism is central – and the age-old problem of corruption.
With a strong mandate, will he be prepared to take tough measures to deal with these problems? Will he keep the lid on fuel prices at home to appease a hostile Parliament and the poor or will he lift the lid to kick-start economic recovery?
And will he push through tough anti-terror laws that will allow detention without trial or cave in to pressures from Muslim hardliners?
Some argue that Mr Bambang might not have as serious a problem as his predecessors in pushing through unpopular policies, given his better communication skills and, more significantly, his widespread popularity.
One of his senior advisers offered a glimpse of what to expect from the new president: ‘If there are unpopular decisions to be made, then he will make them but only after giving Indonesians the rationale for pursuing a certain policy. There are plans for him to go live on TV once a month to explain some of his decisions.’
Using the media to appeal to the masses might well be his strategy to fend off opposition from hostile elements in Parliament.
Having a strong mandate is no guarantee of an easy ride in the House of Representatives. This will be one of the ironies that will confront the Bambang presidency.
For all his popularity across the vast archipelago, he has a small and tenuous grip on the 550-strong legislature.
His rivals Golkar and Ms Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P) have more than 50 per cent of the seats.
But the parliamentary opposition is by no means united. Fraying at the seams, Indonesia’s largest parties have left themselves vulnerable to the incoming president, who will exploit dissension in the rank and file of the juggernauts for his own survival.
How he deals with Parliament might well reflect his broad assumptions: The tectonic plate has shifted in Indonesia today, leaving little room for the old forces.
The traditional bases of support held together by party network and machinery crumbled under the force of one man’s popularity.
Even the Sukarno name could not save Ms Megawati. Swept to power by her family ties to Indonesia’s founding father and first president, the incumbent and her followers might have believed that ancestry was enough to get her re-elected.
But they were wrong.
Mr Bambang dealt her a humiliating blow by winning in several of her strongholds, most significantly Central Java. And signalling the death knell of party politics, he captured most of the votes in areas dominated by Golkar within and outside Java.
First-time voters, who constitute a sizeable 15 per cent of the 150 million eligible voters, are also believed to have cast their ballots for him.
So, from the jungles of Papua and Kalimantan, to the paddy fields of Java and Sumatra, and to the bright lights of Jakarta and other major cities, Mr Bambang scored a thumping majority of the votes across the country.
Now, having won this mandate, can he give Indonesians what they want?