Indonesia Driven by Politics of the Past

When I think about how to describe the current crop of Indonesian presidential hopefuls, I have a vision of the past. All three contenders for president in the polls to be held July 8 are, in their own way, creatures of Indonesia's past. Just a decade into the reform period, the major political figures in this country all came into prominence during the Suharto era. Vice President Jusuf Kalla is a classic Suharto-esque businessman; Megawati Sukarnoputri is a woman longing for a return to the glory days of her father and the incumbent, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a general under Suharto, is a transitional liberal willing to break with the past but uncertain how to do so decisively.

Golkar standard-bearer and Vice President Jusuf Kalla belongs to a class of businessmen who seem to view politics as a branch of the family business. Under Suharto, there was nothing wrong with growing one's business while supposedly serving the public. In this rarefied Manichaean world, monopolies can be a good thing and competition from outside the club is treated with contempt. This is a conservative world where the tenets of democracy might be tolerated but it is hardly a place of liberal values and policies.

For businessmen who thrived under the Suharto regime, growing an empire was predicated upon the grace of the president and his family. Rent-seeking, not competition and open markets, was the magical key for building wealth. In the United States during the 19th century these kind of figures were called robber barons for good reason.

It is small wonder that Kalla and his cohorts wax eloquently about the Suharto years. More than once Kalla has voiced his opinion that democracy has gone too far in Indonesia. I worry that if he were to have his way, he would more than likely dismantle anticorruption agencies, place a muzzle on the media and clamp down on civil and human rights activists.

Given his personal history and values, it is no coincidence that Kalla has chosen retired Gen. (ret.) Wiranto as his running mate. At a young age, Wiranto was taken under Suharto's wing and served faithfully as the president's adjutant. In the eyes of Suharto and his children, Wiranto would have made a perfect successor, mostly because he could be trusted to protect the family's interests and keep the clan firmly in power.

If you think I am exaggerating, consider this: By virtue of where they sit, crony businessmen think of democracy as an intrusion, an unnecessary import from the Western world and, given the potential stakes, which is the dissolution of an old order they came to thrive upon, something to be inherently feared. In the words of a famous liberal US Supreme Court justice, Louis Brandeis: "We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both."

Former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, in contrast to Kalla, is far from being an avaricious industrialist. Neither does she dream of returning Indonesia to its Suharto-run past. But for sure, she is thinking deeply about another past — her father's.

When I first met Megawati in 1997, I asked her about any plans she might have for a political future and what she might consider as a strategy to reach higher office. Our ensuing conversation, with her eyes swelling in pride whenever I raised the name of Indonesia's founding leader, Sukarno, was most telling: "Of course I will one day be the president. I often have conversations with my father about that. But as far as a strategy, you Westerners don't seem to understand. I have no need for a strategy. Instead, I rely upon something else: Factor X."

True to her word, Megawati did eventually become president n 2001 before losing to Yudhoyono in the 2004 election. And as far as I could tell, she certainly did not have a strategy. What she did have in mind, however, was following in her father's footsteps, and if you listened to what she said and even the countries she visited when she was president, it was eerily in lockstep with Sukarno's own philosophies and travels.

Today, there should be little doubt that what Megawati wants more than anything else is to build a sort of Sukarno dynasty. In that sense, she is similar to another famous woman politician, the late Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, whose father, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was, just like Sukarno, an avowed nationalist with socialist leanings who was eventually ousted by a military coup.

Unfortunately, there are also some striking dissimilarities between Megawati and Benazir. While Benazir experienced, in her own words, some of the happiest days of her life in the West during her university years and hence was decidedly pro-Western in her views, Megawati leans toward the opposite side of the aisle. One can only surmise that perhaps her dislike for the West is linked somehow to her knowledge that the United States was no friend of her father.

What, then, given her background, can the electorate expect of Megawati? There is much we know already from her previous stay in office, and many people would conclude from that experience alone that she would not prove much of a leader. Megawati claims, however, that she has learned from her past mistakes. She has also chosen a dynamic running mate, Prabowo Subianto, also a Suharto-era general, who presumably would compensate for her well-known weaknesses.

Still, one must wonder. Megawati's life experience can't be erased. Aloof, an avowed nationalist with a strong aversion toward the West, seemingly uninterested in and incapable of grasping the policy issues that are required of a president, and primarily driven by a dynastic impulse for power, there is little reason to believe that Megawati would be a better president if given another chance.

Finally, there is the incumbent, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. How to describe him? I might choose a well-known political figure from the past with similarities to Yudhoyono: former US President Jimmy Carter. Much like Carter, who was also a military man, Yudhoyono's politics are liberal. Both men are innately reserved and studious. Both are highly educated and considered to be intellectuals.

But the similarities go much deeper. Like Yudhoyono, Carter was criticized while in office for paying too much attention to details. He was also viewed as being indecisive, something which both the Jakarta elite and the electorate recognize as one of Yudhoyono's most glaring deficiencies. Finally, Yudhoyono shares with Carter an inability to roll up his sleeves and develop the types of political relationships outside the palace grounds that would serve him well in building support for his policies.

If re-elected, many Indonesians are hopeful that, somehow, Yudhoyono will become more assertive and leave more of an imprint and legacy behind him.

Personally, I find it difficult to believe he will change very much in his ways. Adjusting policies is one thing, and there are many examples of presidents who have had second thoughts about their previous stances and took on new courses. But the weaknesses that are so apparent in Yudhoyono are not related to policy. Rather, like Carter, it is a question of character and temperament. Should we expect a mature man entering his sixth decade in life to suddenly and radically change his behavior? Of course not. As the old saying goes, what you see is what you get.

James Van Zorge is a partner in Van Zorge, Heffernan & Associates, a business strategy and government relations consulting firm based in Jakarta. He can be reached at