Yudhoyono leaves Indonesia facing an uncertain future

Yudhoyono leaves Indonesia facing an uncertain future

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s place within a broader span of modern Indonesian history has yet to be determined, writes EDWARD ASPINALL.

Less than a month before his presidency came to an end, Indonesia’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became the subject of a trending topic on twitter worldwide. It was not, however, the sort of publicity that the social media-obsessed president liked.

The hashtag that earned the global ranking was ‘#ShameOnYouSBY’, and it was part of a public outcry triggered by the passage on 6 September 2014 by Indonesia’s parliament of a new law that cancelled the right of ordinary Indonesians to directly elect the heads of local governments (mayors in the cities, bupati in the rural districts, and governors in the provinces).

Direct elections had been introduced by a law passed shortly before President Yudhoyono came to power in 2004, and the subsequent flourishing of local democracy through his years in office had done much to remake the nature of Indonesian politics. It facilitated the rise to national prominence, for example, of Indonesia’s newly elected president Joko Widodo (Jokowi), who was first elected as mayor of Solo, and then as governor of Jakarta, before his run for the presidency in 2014. In recent times, some of Yudhoyono’s supporters had been saying that the president should be known as the bapak demokrasi, or ‘father of democracy’, in Indonesia.

The new law was passed by parties supporting Prabowo Subianto, the defeated authoritarian-inclined candidate in last July’s presidential election. Critically, its passage was facilitated by a walkout from the parliament by members of President Yudhoyono’s Partai Demokrat. Without the walkout, Prabowo’s ‘Red and White Coalition’ would not have had the numbers to carry the vote. Moreover, the bill being deliberated by the parliament had itself been initiated by the government—it would have been easy for Yudhoyono’s Minister of the Interior to withdraw it.

At the time of the parliamentary vote, Yudhoyono himself was finishing off the longest overseas trip of his presidency, a trip that, among things, involved him receiving the latest in a long line of honorary degrees, this time from Japan’s Ritsumeikan University, and addressing the UN General Assembly on matters, including world peace and interfaith dialogue. As the storm of criticism broke over subsequent days, Yudhoyono issued a series of baffling and sometimes emotional responses, promising to do what he could to restore local elections, but also taking great personal affront at the accusations made against him.

The public outcry condemning Yudhoyono, its causes, and the responses to it, capture much about the challenge we face in thinking about President Yudhoyono’s years in power, and about what is shaping as his legacy. Was he, as some Indonesians and many international commentators claim, a great president and a major architect of Indonesia’s democratic success? Should his years in power be viewed as a period of political stability and democratic consolidation? Or should they be seen as years of wasted opportunity and stagnation?

Assessing the Yudhoyono presidency

Such questions were the topic of the Australian National University’s annual Indonesia Update conference in September. An array of speakers from Australia, Indonesia and elsewhere addressed particular aspects of his record, ranging from foreign policy through to the security sector, human rights, the environment and economic management.

Though the views were mixed (his achievements in poverty reduction, for example, were viewed by the ANU’s Chris Manning as being noteworthy), the consensus was more negative than the general approval of Yudhoyono’s presidency that we have become used to hearing from the international media and foreign leaders. One common thread identified by many speakers was a tendency for Yudhoyono to emphasise grand statements and ambitious policy goals, yet for his government to fall far short when it comes to measurable achievement.

Out at the forest edge in Indonesia’s provinces, the goals Yudhoyono grandly announced at international conferences count for little.

Take the environment as an example. In 2009, President Yudhoyono gained much international attention for announcing an ambitious goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 per cent from ‘business-as-usual levels’ by 2020, with that goal to rise to 41 per cent should the country receive international support. In 2011, he announced that he would dedicate the last three years of his term ‘to deliver enduring results that will sustain and enhance the environment and forests of Indonesia’.

Partly as a result of such commitments, Yudhoyono will take the chair of the Seoul-based Global Green Growth Institute when he retires as president. Yet in June this year, it was announced that the deforestation rate in Indonesia has overtaken that of Brazil, to be the greatest in the world, with the annual rate of loss of primary forest rising as high as 840 000 hectares in 2012. Out at the forest edge in Indonesia’s provinces, the goals Yudhoyono grandly announced at international conferences count for little, and it is the oil palm plantation bosses and their allies in local governments who set the pace.

Participants at the Indonesia Update conference saw different sources of such disappointing outcomes. For the ANU’s Greg Fealy, the origins are to be found in Yudhoyono’s personality and his hunger for approval, which can ultimately be traced back to his childhood. John Sidel, of the London School of Economics and Political Science, by contrast, looked to structural factors, and compared Yudhyono to similar former military men—Prem Tinsulanonda in Thailand and Fidel Ramos in the Philippines—who came to power during similar moments of democratic transition, and produced similarly disappointing results.

After Yudhoyono

The meaning of the Yudhoyono presidency will come into sharpest focus as time passes and we are able to assess his place within a broader span of modern Indonesian history. We don’t yet know whether the Yudhoyono years will be seen as a stepping stone on the path to democratic deepening, or as a high point of democratic achievement that preceded a slide back toward political conflict and authoritarian regression.

The reason for this is that we face an unprecedented political situation now in Indonesia. For much of the first 16 years of Indonesia’s post-Suharto democratic experience, governments were characterised by so-called ‘rainbow coalitions’ in which most of the major political parties are given a share of ministries. This has now changed. Joko Widodo said from the start that he was interested in a ‘slim coalition’. More importantly, Prabowo Subianto has so far managed to keep the coalition that nominated him for the presidency together, and it controls a majority of seats in parliament. Potentially, the Widodo presidency will be marked by dramatic political conflict between the executive and legislature.

At this moment it is still too early to say if Prabowo’s coalition will hold. It kept together in order to pull down direct elections of regional government heads (it replaced them with indirect elections via local parliaments—most of which are controlled by the coalition). It also captured all the major leadership positions in the new parliament in early October. Some leaders of Prabowo’s Red and White Coalition have expressed desires to change many other laws and to frustrate the president’s legislative and budgetary agenda. Some are motivated by revenge. A period of dramatic polarisation akin to that witnessed in Thailand for the first time seems imaginable.


It is, however, still possible that President Jokowi will be able to pull at least some of the parties currently supporting Prabowo away from the opposition coalition. Indeed, until recently the conventional wisdom was that most Indonesian parties are fundamentally patronage-oriented and therefore will want to gravitate toward the government. Jokowi also has other weapons available, such as the power of government law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute corruption cases—virtually all of his leading political foes are vulnerable on this score.

Whatever the fate of Indonesian democracy under his successor, Yudhoyono’s role will be viewed unkindly by history in this critical transitional phase. To be sure, Yudhoyono kept democracy alive during the period of his presidency, when a more hostile leader could have actively undermined democratic institutions. In his final year, however, President Yudhoyono and his Partai Demokrat backed Prabowo Subianto, a presidential candidate with deeply authoritarian intentions. His party facilitated the repeal of direct local government head elections—one of Indonesia’s signal democratic achievements. It supported Prabowo’s allies in their move to take control of leadership positions in legislative bodies. These acts make a discordant coda to the rule of a man who would be dubbed the father of democracy.

President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in the Polish Senate (Wikimedia Commons via the Chancellery of Senate of the Republic of Poland as part of a cooperation project with Wikimedia Polska.)

Share On:

Leave a Comment