Yudhoyono in Command

Indonesia's first directly elected leader, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has just over two years left before he needs to go to the polls, and some analysts say that with no serious political challengers on the horizon the retired general should win re-election in 2009.

With big-ticket investors again signing onto major projects, notably in energy and infrastructure, the president certainly has some cause for optimism. But several factors, including a posse of generals trying to outflank him, could impact the political landscape in what are expected to be Indonesia’s most hotly contested elections ever.

The biggest question for the rest of the world is how Indonesia’s fundamentalist Islamist parties will fare. The answer appears to be that the country’s nearly 250 million people don’t want them in power any more than they want back the generals who ruled the country from the time former strongman Suharto came to power in 1965 until he fell amidst popular upheaval in 1998.

Yudhoyono, 58, dubbed “the thinking man’s general” by Indonesians, rose to office promising to eliminate Indonesia’s endemic corruption, which Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks a dismal 130 out of 162 countries surveyed — in a tie with such paragons as Azerbaijan, Burundi, Togo and Zimbabwe. Critics complain that Yudhoyono's anti-corruption drive has been selective and that he has failed to net really big fish. Yet there have been a number of high-profile arrests and convictions, including the head of the national election commission, the chief of the government logistics agency and the governor of troubled Aceh province.

Blah Challengers

Arrayed against Yudhoyono are likely to be retreads, including two blah former presidents – Megawati Sukarnoputri, Yudhoyono’s immediate predecessor, whose lackluster tenure led to her electoral defeat; and possibly Abdurrahman Wahid, the president before Megawati, who was basically driven from office for incompetence.

Golkar, the political party that dominated Indonesian politics throughout Suharto’s 32-year rule, may field billionaire businessman Aburizal Bakrie, the country's Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare and a major contributor to Yudhoyono's presidential campaign.

But in a sign of how entrenched corporate power is in the country, Lapindo Brantas, the company blamed for a continuing catastrophic mudflow disaster in the district of Sidoarjo, is a subsidiary of Bakrie’s conglomerate. Analysts say he has stayed in his cabinet position because Yudhoyono needs the support of Golkar, which is still the biggest party in parliament and part of his government. Vice President Jusuf Kalla is chairman of Golkar.

Money politics and party machinery to mobilize voters probably will continue to determine who wins between the two majors, Golkar and PDI-P, the party of Megawati, both of which will challenge Yudhoyono. The president’s own Democratic Party won in 2004 with the support of several smaller parties. However, the main parties, whether secular and nationalist, like Golkar and PDI-P, or Islamist, will all be competing with a host of other parties with significant support. Yudhoyono’s edge comes in name recognition and the lack of a clear national alternative.

Although Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation, the Islamist parties, collectively, won only 20 percent of the 113 million votes or so cast in the 2004 elections, up from 15 percent in 1999. But this time the Islamic Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS, will attempt to capitalize on high unemployment, rising prices and corruption. The party’s chairman said in late August that candidates nominated by PKS have won 81 of 138 regional elections since 2005, saying that PKS aims to expand its reach to secular and nationalist groups to help it achieve the 20 percent threshold in the national legislative elections that would allow it to nominate presidential and vice presidential candidates.

Islamist Challenge

In a test of the Islamists’ power, voters in last month’s election for Jakarta governor were faced with a choice of only two candidates Fauzi Bowo, the incumbent deputy governor, and Adang Daradjatun, the former deputy national police chief, who was running for PKS. Bowo's warning of a capital without bars and nightspots if Daradjatun won appeared to have paid off and sealed his victory.

The PKS image probably wasn’t helped much by the fact that it fielded a former policeman as a candidate, given the widespread perception of Indonesia’s police as universally corrupt. PKS will fight the 2009 elections on an anti-corruption platform while doing its utmost to mask its real doctrine of pushing for Islamic law, or sharia, across the archipelago.

On a brief visit to the country last year President George W. Bush described Indonesia as “an example of how democracy and modernization can provide an alternative to extremism,” and thanked Yudhoyono for democratic reforms that are “making Indonesia strong and better able to play a positive role in Southeast Asia and the world.” But while Bush got that right, the vast majority of Indonesia's poor and unemployed likely care not a whit about such successes. What they care about is how Yudhoyono's policies since he took office in 2004 have affected them.

Those policies have been relatively successful. Ten years ago the Asian financial crisis devastated the country and cut a stunning 15 percent off gross domestic product while Suharto’s cronies began to loot whatever was left. These days the country is actually doing as well as can be expected. It may have been the hardest hit country in the region, and there were real concerns near the turn of the century that it might even come apart as a nation.

The bureaucratic cadres who have traditionally made the government go outside the political sphere, however, have largely managed to put the place back together. In particular the decision to remove fuel price subsidies, although it added to inflation, freed up 7-10 percent of government revenues for other uses. Public debt is being cut. But like Megawati before him, Yudhoyono’s Achilles Heel will be how that performance is judged by those that voted for him in 2004. An estimated 40 million Indonesians still live below the poverty line, and at least 10 percent of the population is unemployed.

While the current national economic and investment momentum may be just the ticket, in theory, for creating durable jobs and addressing poverty ahead of the 2009 elections, the need is for growth in the regions. But after almost eight years of decentralization, the new regional power holders make their own decisions largely unconstrained by the central government.

The resource-rich regions that have benefited from the global commodity boom are tending to keep their assets in non-productive interest-bearing certificates. Regional spending on education, health and infrastructure is low, with 38 percent of total regional spending going to government administration – keeping bureaucrats employed. That was bigger than the total spent on health and infrastructure in 2004, according to the World Bank.

Enter the Generals

Yudhoyono also has to watch his former colleagues. At a meeting with parliamentary leaders earlier this year, former military commander General Wiranto warned that major parties must listen to the "people's political aspirations" to ensure better national leadership and to help improve legislative performance.

Wiranto, who has been indicted for crimes against humanity by the United Nations for ordering the bloody mayhem by the Indonesian Army and government-backed militias after East Timor’s vote for independence in 1999, says his Partai Hati Nurani Rakyat, or People’s Conscience Party, formed in December last year with several other former military commanders, will seek to uphold high moral values. Hanura, as the party is known, has well over 400 branch offices spread across the country, ready to capitalize on demand in the regions for changes in the political party system. Wiranto ran on the Golkar ticket for president in 2004 and finished a distant third.

Though rated by many as, at best, a long shot for the presidency, Wiranto retains close links to the Suharto family – and its money, which could be used to fund parties that support the family, like Hanura, perhaps.

Another former general who wants to be a player is retiring Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso, who was appointed by Suharto in October 1997, apparently as a reward for his crackdown on democracy advocates when he was the Jakarta military commander.

Sutiyoso was re-elected for a second term in 2002, with the full backing of then-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, whose offices he once raided when he was military commander. Yudhoyono’s appointment on Tuesday of Central Java Governor Mardiyanto as the new Minister of Home Affairs, however, effectively reduces Sutiyoso's chances of running for the presidency, given that he will be out of office and out of a position.

Dear Sir/madam,

The Lapindo hotmudflow disaster has been going on for 15 months. Though many measures have been taken, the result is far from satisfactory, either for the victims or the damage caused by the disaster. Authorities dealing with this disaster been busied by legal verification in the compensation process and dealing with the day to day business of stopping the leakage and strengthening the dyke. While they seem to undermine other gloomy prospect ahead regarding the potential of land subsidence, dam breakage, and the prolonged exposed by unidentified and unmeasured gasses to surrounding communities still living in the vicinity. Therefor, we (Civil Alliances for Lapindo Victims, an initiative to help Lapindo disaster victims to fight for their rights) currently are conducting an international campaign to make international community aware of this disaster, thus help to take provide support for the victims and pressure for authorities to take precautionary steps to stop further losses and damage to the people of Sidoarjo. And as part of this campaign, we have written an open letter (please find attached) to the international community to ask for more attention to what happened in Sidoarjo. We're distributing the letter through various Indonesian Student Association overseas mailing lists, and quickly reach a wide array of reader, and attract many responses. In fact, the quickest response come from some South Australian (thewett@adam.com.au or Anthony.Hewett@ato.gov.au) asks as to channel money raised by the Port Elliot Junior High School student for refugee children activities, in response to this letter.

Thank you for your attention and support

Kind regards,

Spokesperson of the Alliances