Indonesia’s hesitant president

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Even though, with the first direct election of a president,Indonesia has officially become a full democracy, some things haven\’t changed. Among them are the facts that corruption exists at every level of Indonesian society, prosecutions of former dictators and their families don\’t occur, and politics is still a game for the rich elite.

The following is a commentary for an international audience on the current political scene in the world\’s 4th most populous and least understood country.

Indonesia’s hesitant president
Patrick Guntensperger

Since his election, the most commonly heard complaint about Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has concerned his failure to act decisively and take advantage of his overwhelming mandate. Those of us who were his strong supporters during the election campaign and the early months of his presidency have increasingly felt disappointed, then dismayed, and ultimately, betrayed by a president who was swept to power on a platform of reform, then did as little as humanly possible to change anything.

There have been countless calls for the president to act with conviction and fulfil his pledges to wage war on corruption, to prioritise poverty eradication, to shift Indonesia from its traditional position as a neo-feudal kleptocracy to a modern, open, democratic society governed by rule of law. SBY, however, has dithered. He has consistently failed to exercise the authority that the people gave him to carry out his promises and instead has sought to appease everyone.

So reluctant is Indonesia’s president to offend anyone, that by his refusal to act, he has disillusioned everyone. Token efforts have been made; public relations has dominated his policy. He has made speeches and spoken out on the issues he should have been acting on; he has assumed the posture of a reformist, but his actions have all too often failed to live up to his promises. Great serve, lousy follow through.

For the last two and a half years, we have cut the president considerable slack. It was a time of consolidation, we rationalised; we excused his hesitancy by allowing him time to build relationships among the fractious political parties and special interests that had to be represented in his cabinet and that make up the houses of parliament. We were bemused that he didn’t take advantage of his momentum and parlay it into a huge popular reform movement when the political honeymoon climate of the post-election period seemed ideal. Perhaps, we allowed, the president has some long-term strategy that we don’t yet grasp.

Turns out we were wrong. It seems that the president simply is not one for walking the walk.

The natives are restless. There is an undercurrent of grumbling about SBY’s recalcitrance on so many things. From his silence on the Tommy Mandala Putra (Soeharto) money transfer scandal, to his failure to push through any meaningful judicial reform, the tolerant and forgiving people of Indonesia are starting to express their frustration. Despite his constant poll watching, regardless of the fact that not upsetting anyone and being liked by everyone has been his guiding principle, SBY’s popularity is at an all-time low and the presidential term is past its halfway point. That’s the downside.

What’s the upside, then? Just this: the SBYs popularity is at an all time low and the presidential term is past its halfway point.

That’s the upside because it must have become palpably clear to SBY by now that his strategy of talking without acting, of seeking to please everyone, of not ruffling the feathers of the entrenched powers, simply doesn’t work. With that approach thoroughly discredited, although he gave it a good run for over two years, the president is now free to abandon that style of diffident leadership, take the bull by the horns, and do what he was elected to do.

This, after all, is the middle of his tenure; that’s the very best time to take unpopular decisions. It’s the best time because he has had plenty of time to consolidate and build relationships. His popularity is down, but he still has the country’s mandate to act. And best of all, there is still time for his actions (should he actually try some) to have some effect before the elections. If he takes this time to make decisions that are necessary but may offend some, the beneficial results will have started to become evident in the last part of his first presidential term. As a re-election strategy, he couldn’t improve on the concept of looking hard at the issues of corruption and the closely linked matters of poverty and wealth distribution, and going for the jugular…right now. Now, when he has little to lose and still has time to see his efforts bear fruit.

The people of Indonesia, disillusioned and discouraged though they are, will certainly rally behind a president who undergoes a sea change, even at this point. His opponents and those who have come accept that all of SBY’s talk is just blowing smoke, will have been lulled into a false sense of complacency and will not expect the hammer to come down. The mild, inoffensive, indecisive, hesitant president who suddenly turns on the wrongdoers with the wrath of nearly a quarter billion frustrated and impatient people would almost unquestionably be carried on the people’s shoulders in triumph into his second term.

Yes, there is an upside. If the President of Indonesia chooses to take advantage of it.

Patrick Guntensperger is a Jakarta-based journalist and political commentator. He may be reached at