Indonesia’s Seven-Year Itch

Kelley Currie | Wall Street Journal | March 30, 2011

This was supposed to be Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s year. The Indonesian president can claim credit for both robust economic growth and his country’s higher profile on the international stage. U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit was a success, and Jakarta is now chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the next year and a member of the G-20.

However, much of the sense of excitement and possibility about Indonesia’s emergence has dissipated lately. Instead of enjoying what should be a triumphant second term after winning re-election in 2009, President Yudhoyono is mired in political scandal and parliamentary intrigue.

Rumors that a potential shake-up in the governing coalition could bring Prabowo Subianto into government have caused alarm among Indonesian moderates. Gen. Prabowo was head of the Indonesian army’s special forces unit during the Suharto era, during which they were implicated in human rights abuses. The image of the popular Mr. Yudhoyono negotiating with such a figure has his political opponents licking their chops.

Meanwhile, human rights advocates are alarmed by the Yudhoyono government’s tepid responses to videotaped evidence of horrific human rights abuses committed by Indonesian security forces in Papua last year. American policy makers are also privately grousing about the difficulty of cooperation with their Indonesian counterparts. On issues from promotion of democracy in Burma to security cooperation, the U.S. has found Indonesian responses disappointing and the authorities difficult to deal with.

Mr. Yudhoyono also has responded weakly to resurgent Islamists, who seem intent on setting the agenda in the absence of his leadership. After a gruesome video surfaced in February of three members of the Muslim religious minority Ahmadiyah sect being attacked during prayers and beaten to death, the president issued a faint condemnation and call for an investigation, but has done little to protect the group. He finally spoke out after a series of letter bombs sent to moderate political and religious figures in recent weeks targeted a member of his own party. The bombs, which police have linked to a splinter group of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist organization, seem to have shaken Mr. Yudhoyono, but whether this will lead to more aggressive political leadership against Indonesia’s Islamists remains an open question.

Rather than a triumphant second term, Mr. Yudhoyono, who has been president since October 2004, seems to be encountering a phenomenon well known to American politicians: the “seven-year itch.” Having experienced such frequent executive turnover in the post-Suharto period starting in 1998, it is understandable that Indonesians may not recognize the symptoms.

It’s easy for outsiders to forget how unsteady Indonesia’s leadership was under the first three presidents of the reformasi period. Now Indonesia faces a very different problem: a once decisive and overwhelmingly popular elected leader who has been in office long enough that he’s getting bogged down, seemingly unable to make or execute forceful decisions.

As problems go, this is not the worst. But Indonesians are understandably frustrated. Mr. Yudhoyono himself seems at a loss as to how to regain his mojo. He is now seen preoccupied with shuffling seats in the legislature and playing to his voter galleries, including dangerous groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

Unfortunately, Mr. Yudhoyono’s crisis of confidence comes at a time when Indonesia is hitting a tricky passage in its democratization. Thirteen years after throwing out its dictator, Indonesia is just learning how to build modern institutions. The political elite, though, tends to regard the process as done and dusted. This thinking can sometimes give the impression that they are unserious about dealing with the quotidian challenges of managing a large, still-democratizing country.

A lack of administrative capacity and weak service delivery mean that democracy is not delivering the socioeconomic improvements for large numbers of poor and rural Indonesians that many had hoped for. Important reforms over the past decade have boosted democracy and the economy, but also contribute to governance problems. For instance, decentralization of power has allowed corruption to flourish at lower levels.

The resulting unease about globalization and growing income inequality are creating openings for Indonesia’s Islamists. While the dangers of jihadism in Indonesia are often overblown, serious threats exist, including real links between political Islamists and their more radicalized co-religionists.

The vigilantism of the FPI, when officially tolerated, creates an environment in which even more radical groups can expand their bases. Intelligence sources have reported that FPI members, together with members of JI and other terror groups, were involved in the formation of an al Qaeda in Aceh cell last year.

Mr. Yudhoyono is facing a vicious cycle: The more he is seen getting his hands dirty with retail politics and legislative horse-trading, the further he diminishes his brand as a clean and forceful leader. That in turn only reduces his political effectiveness.

To regain momentum in the final years of his presidency, Mr. Yudhoyono should draw lessons from successful two-term American presidents. He needs to delegate more of the nitty-gritty of politics to trusted deputies, and devote his effort to public leadership on over-arching policy responses that address Indonesia’s domestic economic, social and security issues in ways that reinforce liberalizing trends.

In the Indonesian context, this means several things. First and foremost, the administration must take forceful action against Islamist antics that threaten to undermine democratic institutions and ideals. Indonesians are demanding a serious and sustained initiative to attack corruption and abuses of power. Economic policy should emphasize open markets, entrepreneurship and diversification.

Indonesians voted for Mr. Yudhoyono because they wanted a leader who could take their democracy to the next level. He has three years left, which is enough time to make an indelible mark on Indonesia and put the country on a positive trajectory, but only if he has the requisite political will to forge ahead.

Ms. Currie is a senior fellow with the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

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Born in Medan, lives in Jakarta, loves Indonesia.

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