Newly Elected Indonesian Leader Faces Challenges

Newly elected Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

Newly elected Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during Friday prayers in Bogo, West Java, on September 24, 2004. (Photo: Inoong/AFP-Getty Images)

On Sept. 20, in an election deemed generally free and fair by independent monitoring groups, Indonesians elected retired general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as their new president. This is the first time an Indonesian head of government has been directly elected by the people.

In a vast and ambitious democratic exercise, an estimated 80 percent of the country’s 147 million voters turned out at more than 600,000 polling booths across the country to vote in the second phase runoff of the two remaining most popular candidates after no contender was able to win a majority in July’s first round ballot.

Though the official result will not be announced until Oct. 5, poll results show Yudhoyono garnered around 60 percent of the vote, easily outpolling his opponent, current President Megawati Sukarnoputri. The new president will be sworn in on Oct. 20.

President Megawati, though refusing to concede defeat, acknowledged her administration’s shortcomings in a speech to the People’s Consultative Assembly, three days after the election and called for the next government of Indonesia to “be more responsive to the needs of the people.”

A tearful Megawati admitted the terrorist threat had been a particular area of neglect for her government. “It is undeniable that there are a lot of tasks which we did not complete and various weaknesses that still have to be improved,” Megawati said. “For these weaknesses and all the things that have not been finished ... I offer you my deepest apologies.”

“The bombing in ... Bali in October 12, 2002, the bombing at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 5, 2003, as well as the bomb in front of the Australian embassy in September 9, 2004, have reinforced our awareness that terror threats must not be underestimated,” she said.

Though his party – the Democratic Party (PD) – gained less than 8 percent of the national vote in legislative elections held in April, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono – known more popularly as SBY – has adroitly tapped into the nationwide discontent felt over President Megawati’s perceived lackluster three-year presidency. Utilizing this dissatisfaction, along with his record as an ex-military man and former security minister in the Megawati government, SBY has presented his credentials to Indonesian voters as the candidate better able to deal with Islamist terrorism, the economy and endemic corruption.

The son of an Army officer, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was born in East Java in 1949, followed in his father’s footsteps, graduating from the Indonesian Military Academy in 1973. Criticized for his role in the genocidal invasion of East Timor in 1975 and his subsequent tours of duty on the island, SBY has been accused by human rights groups of committing war crimes. Rising through the ranks of the military under President Suharto (1967-1998) to become general, SBY served as Indonesia’s Chief Military Observer in Bosnia from 1995-96 and was appointed Chief of the Armed Forces Social and Political Affairs Staff in 1997 before retiring from active service in 2000. SBY is unusual amongst senior Indonesian army officers in that he is better known for his quiet diplomacy than his military prowess. Once described by one of his military colleagues as an “air conditioner general,” SBY is considered an intellectual rather than a warrior.

Even while votes were still being counted, SBY signaled that his presidency would be one of national reconciliation. “While consolidating, I will think about conciliatory steps between my party and President Megawati’s if, God willing, I have really been chosen in this election,” he said.

Both Megawati’s party - the PDI-P - and Golkar, the party established by former dictator Suharto, control the lion’s share of the legislative assembly seats. How SBY negotiates with the power brokers of these parties to implement legislation will be vital to the success of his presidency.

SBY has also signaled his willingness to negotiate with all factions of the political spectrum by hosting meetings with high profile members of Indonesia’s smaller parties in an attempt to win consensus in the nomination of his ministry. Though SBY’s election will be warmly welcomed in Western nations keen to see a clampdown on the anti-Western Islamist terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiah (JI), his own attempts to deal with Islamist terrorism have been described as equivocal.

Despite being blamed for the Bali nightclub bombings in 2002, whick killed over 200 people, the Marriott Hotel blast in 2003, which killed 12 people, and the recent bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta, which killed nine people, the extremist organization Jemaah Islamiah has yet to be proscribed as a terrorist organization in the country. Like many other Indonesian politicians, SBY refuses to admit that such an organization exists. During his tenure as security minister, he dismissed calls to ban the name Jemaah Islamiah saying that its meaning - “Islamic Community” - made it impossible to do so in an Islamic society.

When asked the question on the Australian ABC as to whether or not he would be tougher on terrorism than his predecessor, SBY offered no specifics, saying, “Well, I will continue the serious effort of the Indonesian government to combat terrorism because it's in our own interests. Of course, we have to cooperate with friendly nations, with my neighboring countries, but to be understood that we need our country to … be safer because we suffered a lot in the past two to four years because of terrorism. So I will continue this national endeavor in combating terrorism, for sure.”

The reason for the seemingly unwillingness to commit to pursuing the goal of stamping out Islamist terrorism is clear – Islam is the religion of nearly 90 percent of the Indonesian population making it the largest Islamic nation in the world. To be seen as bending to the West’s wishes and clamping down on JI would risk alienating a large section of the people, which would amount to electoral suicide. SBY, like his predecessor, must walk a tightrope between providing the country with security against terrorist attacks and not offending the more fundamentalist Muslim population.

As an ex-general in the Suharto government, SBY is seen both in Indonesia and the region as having the credentials to deal with terrorism. However, Sidney Jones, the Indonesian project officer for the International Crisis Group, has counseled against assuming that the new administration will be tougher on Islamist terrorism. In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent organization, Ms. Jones pointed out, “… you have the concern that to ban an organization like JI is to raise the specter of restrictions on freedom of association and freedom of expression. There's this concern that we can't do anything that would jeopardize the hard-won civil liberties that we gained after [General] Suharto fell.”

SBY has been described as a General de Gaulle-type figure, able to implement radical changes to the military and other bastions of the Indonesian establishment because of his respected military past. These changes would be considered revolutionary and unacceptable if executed by others. According to Jones, “he's a reformer, but a reformer within a certain kind of establishment mode. People give him credit for pushing to have the dual function of the military – its involvement not only in defense and internal security but also in day-to-day politics – removed from the army's definition of itself.”

“He has a very positive image as somebody who is trying to bring about change from within,” Jones added. “Indonesian voters, I think, looked at his military background and said this is the kind of decisive leader we are looking for, because Megawati was certainly not that.”

Only six years after Indonesians overthrew the bloody, thirty-year-old dictatorship of Suharto and established a tenuous democracy in the sprawling archipelago, they have chosen one of his senior generals to be their next president. SBY has been careful to pay homage to the electoral process and insists on his determination to stamp out corruption and Islamist terrorism in the country. However SBYs obvious closeness to the military, his own lukewarm response to JI and his party’s lack of support in the country’s main legislative chamber means he will face many difficulties in implementing these electoral promises.