Yudhoyono's First YearStriking the right balance

Posted in Asia | 01-Oct-05 | Author: Michael Vatikiotis| Source: Straits Times

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (C) talks to journalists during a press conference at The Presidential Palace in Jakarta.

For The Straits Times

MEASURING progress in Indonesia is hard work. A year into the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, outwardly the country seems to be more or less where it was when this former general swept to power with a huge popular mandate.

There are worries about macro-economic stability based on a soaring oil price and crippling fuel subsidies; there are fears about Islamic militancy as radical groups force churches to close; and there is no real sign that rampant corruption is abating.

But a year is really too short a period in which to judge Indonesia's first directly elected President. On closer inspection some significant changes have been made and, even better, a more sensible and credible government is at last a reality in a country that has lived so long at the mercy of selfish political interests. What is more, the stability and hope that Dr Yudhoyono brings to Indonesia is helping to restore its centrality and influence in South-east Asia.

Dr Yudhoyono's most important achievement over the past year has been to make democracy a reality. The media is free, the country's new Parliament is assertive and untrammelled, and local elections have at last given meaning to local autonomy.

The emergence of a genuine democracy in South-east Asia's biggest country, and the world's largest Muslim population, not only has important implications for the political and economic landscape of South-east Asia, but possibly also for the Muslim world beyond.

Of course, things are still messy. The early stages of untrammelled political pluralism always are. But assuming that the trend continues, Indonesia will become, alongside the United States, India and much of Europe, a dynamic contributor to global governance. Yes, this will eventually mean a more pronounced Islamic identity, but the moderate middle ground should stave off Islamic statehood.

Here are a few things to watch for in the near term. Jakarta will place more pressure on Yangon for political change. It will engage in the Middle East peace process. In short, Indonesia will acquire a more significant international role as the government seeks to place its hard-won democratic credentials at the heart of foreign policy.

In economic terms, the end of a long period of political uncertainty in Indonesia has put South-east Asia's largest market and source of primary resources back on the map. The timing could not have been better.

In the years since the overthrow of the Suharto regime in 1998, Asean has wrung its hands over economic marginalisation in the face of China and India. But with more economic certainty in Indonesia, the region has acquired a new market and a magnet for investment.

Indonesia's remarkable turnaround has also relieved considerable political anxiety about the region. Worries about a second front in the war on terror were given credence by a series of terrorist attacks in Indonesia and beyond in the years after 2001. The bombers were recruited from among the poor and dispossessed. The ringleaders came from religious schools in central Java. Successive post-Suharto governments were either unable or unwilling to tackle the problem.

But now, President Yudhoyono has formally created a counter-terrorism agency and the courts have also dished out death penalties to some convicted bombers.

Another major area of concern for the region is the entrenched culture of corruption, which puts a brake on investment. Dr Yudhoyono has done something that Indonesian leaders in the past had failed to do. He has started to crack down on corruption. A former governor of Aceh is convicted and behind bars and there are ongoing investigations into the country's election commission, a Haj pilgrimage fund, among others.

The war on corruption is not a passing fad for this presidency. Dr Yudhoyono knows that if he falters and backs away from his pledge to battle corruption he will start to lose popular support.

'Our anti-corruption drive has teeth and bites deeply. There are no sacred cows,' Dr Yudhoyono told investors in the US recently.

Presidential aides say that the growing chorus of critics at home reflects how deeply the President's anticorruption campaign is biting. Yet many critics raise valid points that Dr Yudhoyono would do well to respond to.

The President has struck the right tone at home and abroad with his blunt and honest demeanour. But while his popularity ratings remain high, he has demonstrated perhaps too much caution.

Being slow to condemn the forced closure of churches by Islamic radicals is a serious blow to confidence in his government's ability to uphold religious tolerance; the long delay in hiking domestic fuel prices precipitated a mini exchange-rate crisis.

On the other hand, it would help Dr Yudhoyono to achieve some of his ambitious domestic and international goals if he were to delegate some of the work properly. The recently concluded peace agreement ending the long-running conflict in Aceh is a good example of what can be done. Negotiations were driven by the energetic Vice-President, Mr Jusuf Kalla.

Any country that has been through a long and tortured political transition lasting eight years, accompanied by chronic economic decay, would be lucky to boast GDP growth in excess of 5 per cent. The fact that Indonesia can do so despite being hit by the devastating tsunami last year is a testament to better government by any measure.

The writer is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies. A version of this article was given in a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore on Sept 23.

Justifiably proud

Dr Yudhoyono's most important achievement over the past year has been to make democracy a reality. The media is free, the country's new Parliament is assertive and untrammelled, and local elections have at last given meaning to local autonomy.