Earnest President fends off critics



Many of his goals have not been met but economic recovery is in sight.

A LITTLE over three months in office, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is off to a good start – winning plaudits for his leadership and handling of the tsunami crisis and renewed optimism about the economy in the country and beyond.

Investor confidence is up, his popularity ratings remain strong and Standard & Poor’s upgraded Indonesia’s credit rating from B to B+ last month, marking the first change in over a year.

What is more, concerns about his party and backers having only a minority hold in Parliament that followed his election dissipated after Vice-President Jusuf Kalla was elected leader of the country’s largest party, Golkar.

Overnight, this result gave Dr Yudhoyono and his team control of the legislature and put him in the enviable position of being the apparent master of the two main levers of policymaking in Indonesia.

But the road ahead is littered with challenges for the President – there is squabbling within the ranks, he must deal with his No. 2, Mr Jusuf, who is powerful in his own right, and cope with the aftermath of the devastating tsunami that has left more than 220,000 dead or missing.

Since assuming office, the 55-year-old retired general has gone about his duties in his inimitable low-key fashion.

Dr Yudhoyono is seen more as a statesman-like leader compared to his recent predecessors though there is no shortage of critics who accuse him of being indecisive.

Indeed, in some quarters, the euphoria that marked Dr Yudhoyono’s rise to power is slowly giving way to pessimism.

Whatever the justifications for the criticism, it is difficult and maybe unfair to pass judgment at this juncture – 100 days is not enough for anyone to solve Indonesia’s deep-rooted problems.

None of his goals has been fully achieved but he has shown that he is intent on tackling the more serious problems shackling the country’s progress.

Top of his agenda is reviving the moribund economy.

He came to power promising to pursue an economic policy that is ‘pro-growth, pro-employment and pro-poor’.

To sceptics, he has achieved very little. Millions are still jobless. Labour and taxation laws need to be overhauled. And he needs to cut business red tape.

But there are signs of economic recovery, judging from the upbeat market reactions these days.

As an economist himself, the President has opted for a tight, hands-on management style over economic policymaking, digging into the nitty-gritty of every policy alternative before making a final decision.

His economic team, drawn from different ideological orientations – populists and pro-International Monetary Fund types – is working together without the infighting that was widely expected.

The first major test of their working relationship was the combustible issue of fuel subsidies.

In the end, Dr Yudhoyono and his ministers opted for price hikes – an unpopular move that lost him some friends at home but won him praise abroad.

Moves such as these contributed to a large turnout of foreign investors at the recent infrastructure summit where US$22.5 billion (S$37 billion) worth of projects were up for grabs.

But central to Indonesia’s economic revival is without doubt the fight against corruption – where the President’s track record to date has been less impressive.

In his first week in power, he made the right remarks and symbolic moves – he visited the Attorney-General’s Office, the national police headquarters and tax and customs directorate as part of ‘shock therapy visits’.

But few are satisfied.

Aceh governor Abdullah Puteh, accused of marking up the price of Russian helicopters he bought in 2001, was hauled up but is now out of detention.

In fact, Dr Yudhoyono’s track record on corruption in 100 days is no different from his three immediate predecessors’ over the last six years.

On national security, particularly the fight against terrorism, his rhetoric has been uncompromising. He has appointed the very capable ex-general Syamsir Siregar to shake up the national intelligence agency and spearhead counter-terrorism efforts.

But more time is needed for results to emerge.

Two of the most wanted men in the region – Jemaah Islamiah militants Noordin Mohd Top and Azahari bin Husin – remain at large.

JI’s spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir is in detention though there remain doubts whether Jakarta will go the distance in prosecuting him.

In the final analysis, Dr Yudhoyono has not expended all his political capital. The key remains his strong mandate.

His landslide victory in last year’s direct presidential election and securing a more pliant Parliament have given him the unprecedented opportunity to move ahead with his grand plans to take the country out of its economic and political malaise.

The tsunami has just made it that much harder for him and only time will tell if, like his predecessors, he will be swamped by the sheer magnitude of Indonesia’s problems.

The so-called 100-day agenda is not an end in itself and with the exception of his critics perhaps, no one is expecting miracles.

Given the deep-rooted nature of the problems, it will take him at least 1,000 days to make real changes in Indonesia.

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