Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 06:25 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 06:25 | SYDNEY

A president for Indonesia

2 July 2009 21:32

Peter McCawley is a Visiting Fellow at the Indonesia Project, ANU, and former Dean of the ADB Institute, Tokyo.

You would hardly know it from the Australian media, but 2009 is the 'year of politics' in Indonesia. Hotly contested elections were held in April for the national and for dozens of regional parliaments. And on Wednesday of next week, a vital election will be held for the biggest prize of all – the presidency of the Republic of Indonesia.

The parliamentary elections two months ago set the scene. The incumbent president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), stole the show. He was not up for election himself, but his Democrat Party was. 

Support for the Democrat Party jumped remarkably — from around 7% in the last elections five years ago (in 2004) to nearly 22%. Support for the other two main parties, Golkar (formerly associated with President Soeharto) and the Indonesian Nationalist Party of Struggle (currently associated with former president Megawati) slumped sharply. The parliamentary elections two months ago were a triumph for SBY.

However, there's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip in political life. It was not clear whether SBY's triumph in early April would translate into a win in the second big race for the presidency in early July. The last two months have therefore been a period of hot political manoeuvring in Indonesia.

Three candidates are in the running for the presidency: SBY with the backing of his Democrat Party, former president Megawati Soekarnoputri (Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle), and current vice-president Jusuf Kalla (Golkar). On the face of it, SBY will be a shoo-in. He has received an unexpected boost from the marked success in his anticorruption campaign. But polls showing a strong lead for SBY might be unreliable.

Why would it be good news if SBY wins? His critics argue that he is too cautious and that he fails to show strong leadership. His supporters point out that caution is not necessarily a bad thing and that his record on economic management and corruption is strong.

Megawati and Jusuf Kalla have been trying hard to chip away at SBY's poll lead. The signs are that they have cut SBY's lead back a little, but not much. And an important part of the reason is that neither of them have shown much leadership themselves. 

Both have talked vaguely about relying less on 'market forces' to run the Indonesian economy (the implication has been that SBY, and his vice-presidential running mate Dr Boediono, are too reliant on advice from international agencies such as the IMF and World Bank), and on providing more support for 'ordinary people'. Quite what this latter promise means has been quite unclear.

Further – and just as important – both Megawati and Jusuf Kalla are being judged on their own records in office. Megawati was unimpressive in her presidential term, which ended in 2004, and Jusuf Kalla has proved somewhat erratic as vice-president in recent years.

What the SBY-Boediono team offers Indonesia for the next five years is stability. It is true that both are cautious. Neither has offered the Indonesian people any populist castles in the air during the short election campaign. 

But cautious policies are probably what Indonesia needs. Largely because of the well-judged economic policies designed by SBY and Boediono (latterly as Governor of Bank Indonesia) during the last few years, Indonesia is coping with the global financial crisis surprisingly well. If these policies are continued, the outlook for Southeast Asia during the next few years is promising. And this, surely, is good news both for the region, and for Australia.

Photo by Flickr user London Summit, used under a Creative Commons license.