Friday, October 16, 2009

Indonesia's Yudhoyono Consolidates Power

The president's growing coalition rivals the Suharto era

Indonesia has suddenly woken up to the fact that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, elected as a reformer in 2004, could be on his way to amassing a political coalition that could rival the stranglehold on power once enjoyed by former President Suharto before he was ousted from office in 1998.

Yudhoyono, who will be sworn into office next week for his second term, has assembled his power through elections and coalition-building, not the application of raw force used by Suharto. But the results are impressive. His elevation to possible near-unanimous sway also conjures up a long Javanese tradition in which the people expect their leader to reign rather than rule. With his quiet ways and consensus-building Javanese style, Yudhoyono already reminds some observers of Suharto, who was often liked to a Javanese king for his combination of mysticism and ruthlessness. Both men were also army generals before rising to political power.

All eyes are now on the jostling for cabinet posts. Yudhoyono's new 34-member cabinet will be named Wednesday, the day after he is sworn in, with cabinet posts to be distributed among the political parties in his coalition, with professionals expected to take the economics portfolio. Reformers in Jakarta are hoping professionals will be given wider sway in the new body and that many of the visibly corrupt ministers from the past will be dropped.

If reformers and technocrats like Finance Minister Sri Mulyani are replaced by political hacks, critics will likely be alarmed.

In recent days Suharto's old Golkar Party, which broke briefly with Yudhoyono only to be trounced at the polls in the July presidential election, has opted to rejoin the governing coalition following a national convention that elected billionaire businessman and presidential ally Aburizal Bakrie as party chairman. Once the country's largest party, Golkar was also thumped in April legislative elections by Yudhoyono's Democratic Party. In July, Golkar ran its then-chairman, outgoing Vice President Jusuf Kalla, for president. He finished a distant third.

In addition, businessman Taufik Kiemas, the husband of former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, has been seeking to maneuver her Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) into the ruling coalition. It appears that Democratic Party support recently helped Taufik win the chairmanship of the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), the largely ceremonial upper house of the legislature.

Whether Taufik will succeed remains up in the air. Although he reportedly is eager to take any cabinet positions the PDI-P might be offered, Megawati appears comfortable to stay in the opposition. She has the final decision and party insiders say she is unlikely to agree, perhaps because she still is nursing the sting she received when Yudhoyono left her cabinet in 2004 to stand against her for president.
The PDI-P coalition won 26.9 percent of the vote in the July election. If Taufik could convince his wife to join the ruling coalition, Yudhoyono would be at the head of a juggernaut comprising virtually all of the electorate.

Yudhoyono, significantly, earlier brought most small religious parties under his tent in July, effectively co-opting most mainstream — and even not so mainstream — Muslim political power. Golkar and PDI-P are the only big secular players in the political realm, outside of the Democratic Party.

The consolidation of power doesn't mean Yudhoyono, who has staked his presidency on attempting to clean up the mess left by Suharto and several years of basic incompetence under former President Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati, is going to turn into a despot. He probably won't. But his growing political power — largely assembled without much fanfare —has reformers warning that he could pose a threat to democracy.

The question is why Yudhoyono, who won his spurs as a reformer, would still have anything to do with Golkar, in particular. In 2004, he needed Golkar's money and votes, which is the reason he joined hands with Kalla in what was always an uncomfortable
pairing. But Golkar itself is regarded as hopelessly corrupt, a fact underscored at its recent convention when rivals for the chairmanship, including Suharto's son Tommy, a convicted murderer, openly offered vast sums of money (for "development" projects) to delegates in return for their support.

The answer may lie in the president's reported frustration with the House of Representatives during his first five-year term, when he often found it difficult to get legislation passed because his party had a small minority and Golkar's juggernaut sometimes stood in the way despite their nominal support for his government.

Even a Golkar-Democrat alliance, which would account for more than 73 percent of the electorate, has reformers worried. Ray Rangkuti, chairman of the Indonesian Civic League, told reporters last week that a lack of opposition in the House, or DPR, could weaken the performance of the government. He warned that if Golkar and ultimately the PDI-P join Yudhoyono's coalition, there will be no bulwark of parties willing to protect the electorate. Of course, any suggestion that Golkar might have a hand in protecting the people seems a stretch, since it was actively involved in robbing them blind during Suharto's years in power.

In staying with the government, Golkar is only doing what comes naturally. Except for a brief period under Megawati, Golkar has never been an opposition party. Under Kalla as vice president, it was part of the government until he chose to run for president. Bakrie has never had any intention of being in the opposition and vast business empire, a frequent subject of scandal and controversy, is presumed to need the political cover he can get in return for bringing the party to heel after the Kalla split. It is assumed that Golkar will get some key cabinet positions when they are announced next week. A number of Bakrie supporters, among them Rizal Mallarangeng, who led the president's election campaign team and whose brother is Yudhoyono's spokesman, never really sided with Kalla anyway.

Bakrie, frequently named Indonesia's richest man until the global crisis unwound his fortunes, has an empire that includes the country's biggest coal mine as well as telecommunications, real estate and a wide variety of other interests. The latest speculation is that five years from now Bakrie, one of Indonesia's few super rich pribumis, or native ethnic Indonesians, may try to use Golkar as a launch pad to run for the presidency.

The Bakrie companies remain saddled with huge debt. But investors don't seem concerned. Bakrie has been rescued before and now, as head of Golkar, and moving the party into an embrace with the presiding coalition, they have even less concern.
In a clear demonstration of Bakrie's sway, one of the DPR's last acts on the way out the door was to declare a disastrous 2006 gas well blowout caused PT Lapindo Brantas, a company controlled by the Bakrie group, a natural disaster despite the fact that geologists, drilling specialists and other oil and gas professionals have concluded that the mess was triggered by drilling activity. Lapindo Brantas allegedly was negligent in properly capping the gas well, resulting in a fountain of stinking mud that affected more than 50,000 people, making 15,000 homeless, and shows no sign of slowing.

The Bakrie group attempted to sell Lapindo Brantas to an offshore company in 2006 for US$2, which was widely interpreted as an attempt to evade financial responsibility. At last count, only about 20 percent of the suggested compensation had been paid and nobody has been investigated or charged with neglect for the disaster. But while the Bakrie companies have continued to stump up money to the aggrieved homeless, the declaration that it was a natural disaster means no prosecution will take place. Asia Sentinel

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