Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at a press conference in Jakarta. He has vowed to defend the country's anti-graft agency following the arrest of two of its top functionaries and ordered the police chief to explain the arrests, amid growing doubts about his war on corruption.
INDONESIAN President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is on a post-election campaign trail to win new friends and influence more people. But this unconventional trail, of real governance, is obviously tougher than any in a democratic poll process.
On October 20, the re-elected President, widely known by his initials SBY, formally took the oath of office for his second five-year term at the helm of the most populous Muslim-majority state. Back in July, he decisively won the presidential poll in a three-way race and avoided a run-off. The time lag between his re-election and his follow-up oath-taking was caused by a possible run-off that required to be factored in.
Interestingly, when he first won the high office in 2004, he could do so only in a run-off in what turned out to be Indonesia’s first-ever direct election for the presidency under universal suffrage.
His definitive electoral triumph this year fully reflects his relatively newly attained political stature. However, his high standing does not easily translate into a comparable status for his country on the world stage. Although he is aware of this reality, he has not yet embarked on a systematic charm offensive on the international stage.
By the end of the first week of November, two critical issues, one with a domestic political dimension and the other with some international interest, remained unresolved. In the copybook of SBY, who is also simply called either Susilo or Yudhoyono in two different cultural practices in Indonesia, the domestic issue was an acute tussle between the national anti-corruption commission on one side and the police and prosecution agencies on the other. The issue with an international focus was the fate of some asylum seekers from Sri Lanka who remained aboard a boat off the Indonesian coast.Asylum seekers
The asylum seekers were rescued when they were in distress at sea sometime in October. They were then in a maritime zone within Indonesia’s jurisdiction for search-and-rescue operations under the global Law of the Sea. However, the actual rescue was carried out by the Australian Navy at Jakarta’s request. According to Australian leaders, the Indonesian authorities did not, at that time, have a naval vessel in the vicinity of those in distress. So, Australia undertook the rescue mission.
However, the plea of the asylum seekers was left to be decided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, albeit in consultation with the Indonesian authorities. Canberra wanted to stick to this procedure, although reports indicated that the asylum seekers would rather want to seek refugee status in Australia than in Indonesia. In such circumstances, the issue turned out to be a compounded challenge of political correctness and humanitarian compulsions as far as SBY was concerned. However, his long-term democratic credentials of the social kind might not really be determined by the final outcome of this humanitarian episode.
There was no such political leeway for SBY as regards the tussle between the anti-graft body and its apparent opponents. By November 7, Yudhoyono had firmly emphasised that he would not like his anti-graft agenda to be clouded by any controversy. The issue at stake was whether some senior police officers and top prosecutors in the Attorney-General’s office had in fact “colluded” to discredit the anti-graft body by arresting two of its top functionaries on what many believed to be trumped-up charges. A wire tap of a telephone conversation between the alleged “conspirators” was even played during a nationally televised court hearing on the issue.
This event stirred public anger over the perceived obstruction of an ongoing fight against corruption in high places. For Yudhoyono, who as President was responsible for ensuring that the law-enforcement agencies themselves would not decelerate or halt his anti-corruption drive, the issues at stake went beyond the ordinary run of challenges. After all, the anti-corruption agency, generally seen to be on the right track, was autonomous of the presidency in a political sense, as he was the administrative boss of the security forces. His dilemma could be easily discerned.Relevant issues
SBY’s new term has begun on a note of high expectations among the people and a stiff challenge from some entrenched interest groups in the domestic arena. The relevant issues are not only the various aspects of the fight against corruption but also the battle to keep the national economy on an upward trajectory of “inclusive growth”. So viewed, the prime agenda in SBY’s second term seems to be slightly different from the priorities in his earlier tenure.
As he trounced Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has been for long the poster leader of Indonesia’s anti-authoritarian politics, in the 2004 presidential election, Yudhoyono found himself facing a different set of challenges. These were counter-terrorism and democratic stabilisation, in addition to the primacy of economic growth with social justice.
From this standpoint, a panoramic view of his current position does slightly obscure but not altogether exclude the continuing relevance of counter-terror strategies and a pro-democracy agenda.
Indonesia has certainly come out of the long shadow of Suharto’s authoritarianism, but the new democratic order still requires to be reinforced by political pluralism and socially responsible economic activism.
On the international stage, Jakarta has yet to seek a suitable role. As a sprawling archipelago and a leading member of the 10-state Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Indonesia does have the strategic space for self-expression as the world’s third largest democracy after India and the United States. Without being very vocal or aggressive about any particular foreign policy preferences, the once-articulate non-aligned country is now biding its time for a role on the world stage.
In a sense, Indonesia’s somewhat self-effacing foreign policy in recent years has proved quite productive, especially in the period since the fall of the authoritarian Suharto in 1998. Its inclusion in the relatively new Group of 20 (G-20), a largely informal global forum of states to fix economic problems, is something that SBY can take credit for.
Indonesia’s initial profile as a newly independent country in the mid-20th century was one of an abrasive power on the prowl. Jakarta’s policy of “confrontation” with some neighbours in South-East Asia at that time was compounded by another act by the first generation of Indonesia’s post-independence leaders. This was the annexation of East Timor, which finally broke itself free from Jakarta’s control around the turn of the present century with help, in particular, from the United Nations, as an umbrella organisation, and Australia and the United States as individual state-players.
Somewhere during Suharto’s long reign until almost the end of the last century, Indonesia decided to play a sub-optimal role within the ASEAN forum. This was seen by some ASEAN experts as something that helped the forum stabilise itself, in the absence of a traditional high-handedness of a big brother.
However, and in some significant contrast, Yudhoyono has now signalled that Indonesia will begin to play an active role in world affairs, with some firmness and a soft touch. The largely subtle message remains to be translated into firm foreign policy.
(Letters to the Editor should carry the full postal address)
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