Winds of political change in Indonesia

The rusting steamroller parked opposite Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s presidential campaign headquarters is a suitable symbol for what is expected to happen at the ballot box on Monday.

This Asian nation of 220 million people is at a political crossroads
This Asian nation of 220 million people is at a political crossroads

Two recent polls indicate the retired four-star general is the favourite of over 60% of 153 million eligible voters in the final round of Indonesia’s first-ever direct presidential elections.

Among them is Dede Hartono, a motorcycle taxi (ojek) driver, who sees the hastily resurfaced Jakarta side street leading to the campaign office as proof of Susilo’s compassion rather than confirmation that vote-buying is alive and well in the world’s fourth largest democracy.

“Praise to Allah, this shows that he has power and the prosperity of the public in his heart,” the chain-smoking 48-year-old said on Sunday. “All us poor ojek drivers and everyone else in the neighbourhood will vote for him now.”

If Susilo emerges as Indonesia’s fourth president in six years, the man universally known by his initials SBY will inherit a nation heading for the precipice.

Multiple problems

Over 40 million Indonesians are unemployed; rapacious business cartels are stripping the country of its natural resources; separatist insurgencies are gnawing at both ends of the sprawling archipelago; and the lack of legal accountability is undermining efforts to attract desperately needed foreign investment.

President Sukarnoputri has seena dramatic drop in public support

President Sukarnoputri has seen
a dramatic drop in public support

Although it barely registers as a campaign issue, Indonesia is also struggling with its own domestic insurgency.

Police believe an al-Qaida-affiliated organisation called Jemaah Islamiyah is behind the 9 September truck bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta that killed nine people and injured more than 180 people. It was the third such incident in less than two years.

“I think they (the public) have concluded that SBY is the kind of leader who has a sense of direction and discipline, more so than Megawati,” says Airlangga University sociology professor Daniel Sparringa.

“But people now expect substantive changes and if he can’t deal with the big issues, fight corruption, pacify the regions and make people feel secure, then he could end up like Megawati in a few years.”

Waning fortunes

The daughter of Indonesia’s charismatic founding president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, 57, was the runaway crowd favourite during elections in 1999.

Five years on, support for her party has dropped by almost a third and she only narrowly beat an accused war criminal to qualify for today’s run-off vote.

“I think they (the public) have concluded that
SBY is the kind of leader who has a sense of direction and discipline, more so than Megawati”

Daniel Sparringa,
sociology professor,
Airlangga University, Indonesia

It is hard to know what an SBY government might look like because neither of the candidates addressed substantive issues during the campaign.

It would likely lead to a strengthening of ties between Indonesia and the US. A career soldier and graduate of US military training programmes, Susilo apparently has fond memories of his time abroad.

In a column published in the International Herald Tribune last year, US businessman Stanley Weiss quotes the candidate saying: “I love the United States, with all its faults. I consider it my second country.”

US policy in the Middle East is hugely unpopular in Indonesia and Susilo has denied making the comments. (Weiss’ office says he is on holiday and unavailable for comment until the end of September).

US favourite?

The US is anxious to restart suspended joint training programmes with the Indonesian military, and to drop the congressional arms embargo imposed after army-backed pro-Jakarta militiamen riot in East Timor five years ago.

Front-runner SusiloYudhoyono’spolitical skills are untested as yet

Front-runner SusiloYudhoyono’s
political skills are untested as yet

While US diplomats deny playing favourites, a victory by Susilo would suit a White House that is casting about for Muslim allies as it pursues its own war against religious radicalism.

“For sure he’s given every indication he’ll be tougher than Megawati,” says Jakarta-based AGI security analyst Roger Hill.

Megawati’s long-time security minister and closest cabinet confidante, Susilo has proven Teflon-coated when it comes times time to assign blame for Indonesia’s many woes.

 He okayed the ongoing bloody military crackdown on separatist forces in Aceh, but is still perceived as a voice of much-needed military reform.

A reputation for prevarication and indecision has been repackaged as evidence of someone who seeks consensus, a valued trait on the island of Java where over half of Indonesia’s 220 million people reside.

Teflon coated

Nor do Susilo’s chances appear to have suffered from comments made by his vice-presidential running mate that have angered many women and alienated the powerful ethnic Chinese business community.

A poll official in Jakarta preparesballot boxes for Monday’s vote

A poll official in Jakarta prepares
ballot boxes for Monday’s vote

“No one seems to be able to make anything stick on SBY, and it’s not for lack of trying,” said one Western diplomat. “If he wins we’ll have a chance to see what he’s really made of. The stakes are extremely high.”

Should he win, Susilo’s political skills will face their toughest test yet.

His tiny Democratic Party holds just 56 of the 550 seats in parliament and all the major power brokers in the country, including the former ruling Golkar party, are supporting Megawati’s presidential bid.

Deals will have to be struck to form a functioning cabinet and avoid the legislature turning into a killing ground for government-sponsored bills.

While there’s some optimism among Jakarta’s ojek drivers, Indonesia’s road to recovery is still littered with potholes.

Source: Al Jazeera

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