Looking ahead in Indonesia: Challenges for the president-elect
Looking ahead in Indonesia: Challenges for the president-elect
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Looking ahead in Indonesia: Challenges for the president-elect

For the first time ever, Indonesians have chosen a president through direct elections and given the victor a whopping mandate for change. General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono or SBY, now certain to be the country's next president, will come to office on Oct. 20 with more legitimacy than any president since Sukarno.

Now the question is what kind of a leader he will be. What are his priorities, what does the Indonesian public expect of him, and how much will he be able to deliver?

It's difficult to get much of a clue from the campaign, because it was personality-driven and virtually issue-free. Indeed, one unofficial campaign document said he deserved the presidency because, among other things, he was firm, effective, visionary, strategic, reformist, clean, responsible, patriotic, devout, gregarious, charismatic, and sexy.

To the extent he has committed himself to specific policies, he has focused more on job creation, legal reform, and cheaper education, but without going into detail. The first signals about his intentions in this regard will come from his cabinet choices. If he gets top notch professionals and he may well for the economic slots, as well as for the Education and Justice Ministries and the attorney general, then we might see more substantive reforms down the road.

  • Other issues are murkier:Corruption. SBY has said he will made his administration corruption-free, but that's easier said than done when some of the traditionally "wet" (corruption-prone) posts, such as Transport and Communication, may have to go to political allies. He might use an activist attorney general to prosecute some high-level corruption cases, but it is also possible that he may not want to make political enemies right off the bat. 
  • Terrorism. SBY is likely to make moves to improve inter-agency cooperation, but it is not clear whether he will act to ban Jemaah Islamiyah or to look at terrorism as an issue that goes beyond law enforcement. The domestic political constraints he faces from the conservative Muslim community, worried how anti-terror moves might stigmatize Islam, and from political reform advocates, concerned that any increased powers of arrest and detention would mean a rollback of hard-won civil liberties, are the same as those confronting his predecessor.
  •  Security Sector Reform. Don't expect major progress on this front. SBY had a reputation as a reformer within the armed forces, and he is on the record about the need for civilian control. But he has already backtracked on earlier statements supporting gradual elimination of the army's territorial command structure, a key to military reform, and he has waffled on whether the military should be brought under the Ministry of Defense, or left where it is, under the direct control of the president. SBY will need to move quickly to assuage police worries that he has no intention of undermining their authority over internal security. Festering army-police rivalry remains a serious problem, and many in the police backed Megawati because they were worried about SBY's military ties.
  • Aceh. SBY is not likely to abruptly terminate military operations or to revert to negotiations in this rebellious area. But he could well put Aceh higher on the agenda than President Megawati Sukarnoputri did, making more trips to the region and spending more time on addressing basic governance issues. That would be an improvement, but no dramatic move is likely in this decades-old conflict.
  • Decentralization. SBY supports efforts to amend two regional autonomy laws that have resulted in a massive transfer of fiscal and political power from the central government to some 450 districts across the country. The transfer has been largely healthy, but it also has been marked by legal confusion, an absence of regulatory mechanisms, and, in some cases, increased corruption. Amending the laws will be a tricky political balancing act between Jakarta and local governments, and a test for SBY.

The problem is that the new president-elect is not by nature a risk-taker, and, despite his campaign document, is not a visionary. No one should expect big, bold moves. SBY will also have to work with a parliament that his tiny party does not control. Either he makes alliances and compromises, or he vanishes five years hence as a serious political player.

The best scenario is that SBY will make slow, steady progress on the three areas his team has identified as priorities, that he will prove the skeptics wrong by being a hands-on, activist president, and that he will leave the country significantly cleaner, safer, and richer at the end of his first term. The worst scenario is that he ends up muddling through like his predecessor.

For the moment, Indonesians should savor not just SBY's victory, but their own in producing so peaceful a changing of the guard.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.