Walking a tightrope between reform and caution

NEWS ANALYSIS

WHEN former president Suharto fell from power in May 1998, the question on everyone’s mind then was whether his successor would be able to bring about much needed change in the country.

Four presidents on, the question remains rhetorical – and has taken on more significance – with Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in charge.

Winning a huge mandate in Indonesia’s first direct election last year, he promised reform when he was sworn into power on Oct 20.

As Indonesia moves further down the path of Western-style democracy, the genteel Javanese finds himself, like his predecessors, walking a tightrope between reform and caution.

Underlying this is the waning influence of his office. Indeed, Indonesia is witnessing the most dramatic decline in presidential power in post independence history.

A strong Vice-President, the rise of Muslim-based parties, regional autonomy, and the growing impertinence of the media is chipping away at the imperial stucco that once graced the politically sacrosanct Merdeka palace.

This has significant ramifications for what Indonesia’s sixth leader can or cannot do.

Indeed, he celebrated his first year in power this week without the accomplishments his supporters dreamed of.

The reform targets he set 12 months ago were ambitious: eradicate corruption, bring about economic recovery and fight terrorism.

His report card a year on is less than impressive: Indonesia’s legal system is under attack, the economy is still in a mess and the latest Bali attacks suggest that terrorism remains a serious threat.

But a year in power can never be an accurate gauge for any leader’s performance.

One can also argue that the reform initiatives were snuffed out by events beyond Dr Yudhoyono’s control.

He had to face one disaster after another – the tsunami, Bali bombings, and outbreaks of bird flu and polio, as well as soaring oil prices.

So far, he has come out relatively unscathed and still enjoys widespread popularity – even if the latest polls show that it has somewhat receded – as a man of integrity.

Internationally, he is feted by fellow leaders who welcome his moderate Muslim credentials and sound economic policies.

The Bali blasts and a massive hike in fuel prices failed to dampen the stock market or weaken the rupiah as investors have gradually developed more confidence in Indonesia.

No one can disagree that after seven years of tumultuous and erratic leadership under Dr B.J. Habibie, Mr Abdurrahman Wahid and Ms Megawati Sukarnoputri, a semblance of much-needed political stability has returned to Indonesia.

One of his biggest – if most understated accomplishments thus far – is neutralising his enemies in the all-powerful Parliament.

Concerns about his party and backers having only a minority hold in the legislature dissipated after his Vice-President Jusuf Kalla was elected leader of the country’s largest party, Golkar.

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

And opposition to his rule, while conspicuous in occasional street protests, became marginalised in Parliament.

A constitutional amendment has also made it difficult for legislators to impeach the President.

If anything, these will ensure that he remains in power until 2009.

Beyond Jakarta, he has things under control in the regions across Indonesia.

In August, the government signed a historic peace deal with rebels in Aceh, eight months after the tsunami.

Half the security forces have left the troubled province since rebels agreed to disarm in return for a degree of regional autonomy.

For the first time in years, the political centre in Jakarta is holding without any direct serious challenge to it. Today, fears of centrifugal forces bringing about Indonesia’s disintegration are muted.

Obvious tensions still exist in Aceh and Papua but there is neither the demographic weight nor the force to challenge Jakarta.

Despite all that control and the huge mandate he won in the election, he is occupying a seat of power that has some of its political clout.

Two power centres have emerged in the capital – one led by him and the other by his influential Vice-President.

Increasingly, Mr Jusuf has been taking a hands-on approach to policymaking much to the disdain of the President’s backers.

Some argue that that the deputy was key to the bold decision to raise fuel prices in the country and the mastermind of the Aceh peace pact.

On the other hand, not much has been done in facing down the challenges from religious extremism and the growing manifestations of political Islam in Indonesia – areas in which Dr Yudhoyono, a former general and an ex-security czar was expected to take the lead. As yet, no new laws to hunt down extremists or to ban the Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network have been passed.

This inaction exposes the heart of public policy making and the way the state structure has responded to internal troubles since 1998.

Indonesians saw Dr Yudhoyono as a new light – a strong leader, popular within the military and the public.

But one year on, they are seeing shades of his predecessors in him: overly cautious and resistant to change.

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