Reality bites for Yudhoyono

SANTIAGO was a world away for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in more ways than one.

At the recently concluded Apec summit there, he was feted by fellow leaders who welcomed his moderate Muslim credentials and assurances of sound economic policies. Here was a man they could do business with, they thought, seeing in the former general a refreshing change from his predecessors – the uncommunicative Megawati Sukarnoputri and the erratic Abdurrahman Wahid.

But things are a lot different back home in Jakarta.

After being buoyed by the euphoria of winning a resounding popular mandate in the country’s first direct leadership ballot, Dr Yudhoyono is coming down to earth and finding the landing painful.

He is learning that there is no escaping crude partisan politics, something that is likely to shadow him for the rest of his five-year term.

The attacks come in all forms. There is the ‘SMS war’. Text messages are being circulated via cell phones alleging that Dr Yudhoyono is to blame for an accident at a toll highway that killed six.

But police investigations reveal that the accident occurred when patrol officers stopped traffic to allow the presidential entourage to pass. A speeding bus rammed into the queue minutes after the President passed.

In Parliament, it is open season on the President.

Members of the country’s two largest parties, Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle, have launched vitriolic attacks accusing him of being weak. They say he caved in to pressure from the Muslim parties and Vice-President Jusuf Kalla in forming his Cabinet.

Opposition parties have also ambushed him in two areas where the potential for harm is greater. The first concerns the election of chairmen for the 11 commissions and five other auxiliary bodies in the legislature. Golkar and its allies in the Nationhood Coalition, which together command close to 60 per cent of the 550 seats in Parliament, cornered most of these positions. This forced the minority People’s Coalition, which Dr Yudhoyono is aligned to and which wanted proportional representation, to boycott the proceedings.

Round One in the battle appears to have gone to Dr Yudhoyono’s rivals despite talk from his camp that negotiations are on for a yearly rotation of the commission heads.

The second issue is even thornier and has yet to be resolved: The appointment of the armed forces commander.

The outgoing government presented him with a fait accompli by issuing a letter to Parliament to appoint current army chief Ryamizard Ryacudu as the new military leader. This was a particularly stinging slap for the President as it denied him room to choose his own military chief.

Not surprisingly, Dr Yudhoyono revoked the appointment letter, causing another storm of protest.

The standoff persists. Current Indonesian Armed Forces commander Endriartono Sutarto holds on to the post as the President and Parliament slug it out behind the scenes.

These two issues are a harbinger of things to come for the Yudhoyono administration. Parliament and the executive will be engaged in a protracted power struggle. And it will be an unpredictable contest given the MPs’ penchant for switching alliances depending on the issues of the day and how that will affect their self-interest.

Golkar, despite winning the top post in Parliament, will not be able to sway everything in its direction. But neither will the President and his supporters.

The danger for Dr Yudhoyono is that the battle in Parliament will stall his programmes for change – and that will cost him the support of the people who had such high hopes in him as he fought his way to the presidential palace.

But while the daggers are out for him at home, he is winning plaudits abroad. He is the face of change in Indonesia – and importantly represents the first real challenge to the old oligarchy.

Winning convincingly in a direct election has lent him a political legitimacy that no other Indonesian leader had ever enjoyed before.

His moderate Islamic credentials and Western education appeal to an international audience that fears that the world’s most populous Muslim nation could go the path of fundamentalist Iran.

At the sidelines of the Apec summit, he received assurances from US President George W. Bush that Washington would work to normalise military relations with Jakarta. The ties were strained after the US imposed an arms embargo following the Timor Leste imbroglio in 1999.

Japan promised billions of dollars worth of investments, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi pushing for ‘a new economic partnership’.

And China might have beaten everyone else in the race to cultivating good relations with Dr Yudhoyono. It sent a high-level trade delegation to meet him at his residence in Bogor last month, even before he was sworn in as President.

How soon will domestic problems begin to cast their shadows over the sunny reception in Santiago? It is early days yet, but it is already clear that Dr Yudhoyono will have a restive Parliament to contend with.

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