Articles

How will the general use his huge mandate?

International Herald Tribune
22 September 2004
Jane Perlez Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Will the new president of Indonesia, General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, revert to the old style of his mentor, Suharto, and become a strongman of Asia?
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This was the question for Indonesians who declined to support him even though they knew the general was better qualified than the housewifely incumbent, Megawati Sukarnoputri.
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The answer is: Unlikely.
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These are new times in Indonesia. Monday's runoff election was the third - count them, the third - national balloting this year in Indonesia. April was the month for parliamentary elections; July for the first round of the presidential voting, and September for the runoff. All three proceeded smoothly, and involved hundreds of thousands of election workers who were happy to be involved in the process of winnowing down a field of more than a dozen presidential candidates to two.
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Elective politics, it seems, has taken root in Indonesia.
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The Straits Times of Singapore, somewhat scornful of Indonesia's democratic trends, wrote in a pre-election editorial: "It is reasonable to ask whether the Indonesian people can eat democracy." But then the newspaper acknowledged: "That Indonesia is having its president elected directly for the first time is cause of cheer."
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Even if he wanted, it would be hard for the general to reverse the democratic trend.
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Wimar Witoelar, a political commentator who remained neutral during the election, said the likelihood of Yudhoyono's going the way of Suharto was "about 40 percent." Even with that fairly high estimate, Witoelar said a throwback to autocratic means would more likely come through the complacency of the people rather than a power grab by the general.
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"I'm concerned that if people give him too much leeway there will be an easy way out for him," Witoelar said. "It would be easy for him to rely on the New Order guys from the Suharto time. They are not necessarily evil, but they are used to fudging the issues, they are not sharp, they play with corrupters. I do hope he doesn't crawl into his womb and cuddle his big friends. There are so many other people to choose from."
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The most compelling factor about the Yudhoyono victory is the size of his mandate. Some are calling it a surplus of power.
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Although counting is not completed, it appears that he will win by 23 percentage points. The general will finish with about 61 percent of the vote, and Megawati with about 38 percent, according to the Indonesian election commission.
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The general prevailed in every part of the nation, with the exception of the island of Bali, where it looked as though Megawati would win. He will be sworn in Oct. 20.
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Despite the strength of his showing, the general has shown signs of reconciliation with the Megawati forces, saying he would retain several of her ministers in his new cabinet.
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But many Indonesians hope he will strike out in new directions, abandon his reputation for indecisiveness and appoint bold faces in the important jobs.
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At the top of the list among the reformers that the general is considering is Marsillam Simandjuntak for attorney general. This is a post with real power to deal with the corruption that eats at the fabric of Indonesian society.
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Marsillam, who spent time in jail during the Suharto regime, is viewed as incorruptible. Teten Masduki, the head of Corruption Watch, a nongovernmental organization, says Marsillam has "no conflicts of interest" and has the "guts" to take on the people who have ripped off banks and government agencies.
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But Masduki said he had few illusions that the level of Indonesia's corruption could be reduced quickly, even if Marsillam won the job. "The attitudes of the political elite have not changed," Masduki said. "They are still corrupt."
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One of Yudhoyono's colleagues from the military, General Agus Widjojo, agrees with Witoelar that slippage back to the bad old times of the Suharto era is unlikely.
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Widjojo says Yudhoyono, who in public appearances seems genial but not a back-slapper, does not see himself as a messianic leader. But Widjojo agreed that now that the people had elected a former general, they had to continue to participate in politics and not just leave the whole stage for Yudhoyono.
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"People are becoming aware that they are part of the decision making," Widjojo said. "The cultural tradition of society is more in tune with great leaders. Now we have to keep reminding the society they are part of the process."
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The fact that the elections went so smoothly in the world's most populous Muslim nation has been hailed in Washington. To some Bush administration officials, Indonesia's path to democracy holds promise for other Islamic societies, including those in the Middle East.
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But Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland who has just completed a survey of attitudes in the Middle East, cautioned that a transfer of democratic patterns from Indonesia to the Arab world was improbable.
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"The Arab world has not looked at other 'Islamic' models in the past, including Turkey's model, and they are not likely to look at Indonesia this time carefully," Telhami said. In a new survey in the Middle East conducted in conjunction with the polling company Zogby International, the professor found some new trends.
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"In the past, Arab identity has trumped Islamic identity," he said. "My newest survey shows that Islamic identity is gaining, in good part as a consequence of a pervasive perception that the U.S. is seeking to weaken Muslims."
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Witoelar says Washington should take cheer from the Indonesian example, but not necessarily as one to be replicated other places. "The Middle East is the Middle East," he said. "We just happen to have the same religion."
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For the moment, he said, Indonesians were gratified by what they had accomplished, especially compared with some neighbors.
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"In Singapore I told them recently: 'You've got everything: good hospitals, good traffic, very honest people, but no democracy. In Indonesia we've got democracy but nothing else.'"
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E-mail: pagetwo@iht.com JAKARTA

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