DENPASAR, Bali - The honeymoon ended for Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono less than a month into his second term. Since his inauguration on October 20, there hasn't been much good news for SBY, as Yudhoyono is universally known here, and the downward spiral is accelerating.
A burgeoning scandal over an alleged plot to frame leaders of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) burst open with the broadcast of tape recordings in which the accused are heard bragging to cohorts in the attorney general's office about having connections right up to Istana Merdeka - the presidential palace. (See Corruption bomb explodes in Indonesia, Asia Times Online, November 6, 2009.)
The corruption case has led masses of demonstrators and 40,000 on the Facebook social networking website to call for presidential action against the alleged plotters. The pair are reportedly members of a so-called "judicial mafia", made up of prosecutors, police and judges, that has sold prosecutions and verdicts to the highest bidder. Critics have said Indonesia's legal system is dishonest and a large stumbling block to the country attracting desperately needed foreign investment.
Just the facts
Upon hearing the KPK framing tapes, SBY firmly threatened action against anyone dragging his good name into the scandal, but he has taken no action against any of the other officials named or implicated - many of whom were appointed by him. Instead, he has created a fact-finding team, which reported to him on Tuesday. Yudhoyono met the attorney general and national police chief on Wednesday and is due to announce his response next week.
Despite the commission finding that the prosecutions are baseless, police and prosecutors are continuing to pursue their cases against the KPK leaders.
The idea of a fact-finding commission recalls the case of Munir Said Thalib, the very effective anti-military human-rights activist who was poisoned and died on a flight to Amsterdam in 2004, just before Yudhoyono took office.
The new president promised to get to the bottom of it, appointing a fact-finding commission that discovered obvious links to the military intelligence service, including detailed plans to assassinate Munir through a staged traffic accident (attempted and failed) and poisoning. More than five years later, none of the key alleged plotters have been convicted.
Even the alleged designated fall guy saw his conviction overturned, a clear sign in retrospect that the "judicial mafia" has little to fear from Yudhoyono.
The current KPK scandal dogs Yudhoyono everywhere he turns. At a business forum on the fringes of last weekend's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, he got a softball question about what he has done to improve Indonesia's investment climate. With his international reputation as a corruption fighter, it would have been the time to launch into a riff reviewing those credentials. But the KPK scandal shows Yudhoyono's corruption-busting reputation is now in doubt.
Amid his troubles, Yudhoyono also canceled a planned visit this week to Australia. Indonesia's most important regional bilateral relationship is under strain because; despite talking warmer talk, Kevin Rudd's government hasn't walked a more friendly walk than the John Howard government on the key issue of refugees. Australia's closed door for migrants at sea leaves Indonesia holding the bag on thousands of refugees from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and beyond. It's an issue Yudhoyono needs to resolve more equitably with Rudd, but this week's opportunity has slipped by.
'You missed a stop'
Adding insult to injury, US President Barack Obama's first trip to Asia included visits to Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea, but not Indonesia. Obama, who lived in Indonesia as a child and can still make small talk in Bahasa Indonesia, the official national language, would have been greeted as a returning hero.
For whatever reasons, Obama skipped Indonesia - he said on Monday that he will visit in 2010 with his family, who did not accompany him on this Asia trip. George W Bush visited the country twice, once remaining practically within sight of Air Force One, and the second time traveling to Yudhoyono's Bogor residence, necessitating a massive security cordon that included shutting down mobile-phone networks.
Even seemingly welcome pieces of news are tainted for Yudhoyono these days. Transparency International announced this week that Indonesia had risen from number 126 to 111 on its annual global corruption list. However, Transparency International Indonesia secretary general Teten Masduki was compelled to add that the rankings were done before the KPK scandal.
"It is possible that Indonesia would rank lower than in earlier years if the scandal had occurred before we conducted the survey," Masduki said.
There have been other reminders that Indonesia's bad old ways have not yet been relegated to the scrapheap. In Riau province, Greenpeace is leading protests against a government concession to a paper company on what the environmental group claims is vulnerable peat land entitled to legal protection. The police arrested more than 30 protestors and deported a pair of foreign reporters. But, as in the Suharto era, the government is unlikely to investigate the claims behind the protests. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in a statement, "The expulsion of foreign journalists harks back to the country's authoritarian past, not its democratic present."
Road to nowhere
The environmental movement dealt Yudhoyono another blow with the decision announced at the APEC summit that there won't be a final deal on climate change at the much-anticipated Copenhagen meeting next month. Few national leaders were likely to look forward to Copenhagen quite as much as Yudhoyono. He hosted the Bali meeting in December 2007 that set out the road to Copenhagen, and Indonesia would have been in line for tens of millions of dollars in preservation funds for its rainforests, now on hold.
Yudhoyono is also under siege for Indonesia's deepening shortfall in electric generating capacity. During that Bali meeting, if SBY had said he wanted to make Indonesia the world leader in renewable generating capacity, companies would have flocked to install it, starting on the high-profile international resort island of Bali. Instead of being a showplace and a proving ground for renewable technologies, areas of Bali (along with Java) are experiencing regular blackouts of several hours up to twice a week.
Yudhoyono apparently didn't take that bold step of embracing renewable energy because it would have offended entrenched energy interests, and that's not his style. That caution and instinct to avoid rocking the boat has also guided his response to the KPK scandal that has led to so much public outcry.
But those who complain, whether in newspaper editorials or on Facebook, about Yudhoyono's failure to act boldly on the KPK scandal are like people who buy a ticket to a Metallica concert and complain about loud music or go to a strip club and complain about naked flesh. Yudhoyono is displaying the very qualities that got him twice elected and make him the right leader for Indonesia at this moment in history.
Taking the middle ground
His impulses to take the middle path, find compromise, and conciliate are precisely what Indonesia needs to continue its growth into the only truly functioning democracy in Southeast Asia. Since 1998, Indonesia has had four peaceful, legal transitions of power, three of them between leaders from different parties with vastly divergent agendas. Over that same period, it is difficult to name another Southeast Asian nation that accomplished one such transition without a coup or behind-the-scenes military manipulation.
Steps such as creating a broad coalition cabinet, even though Yudhoyono won 60% of the presidential vote, help to create a tradition that politics isn't a winner-take-all event, but a mechanism to govern all of the people in a nation of 17,000 islands that has the world's largest Muslim population, but more Christians than Australia, and where "unity in diversity" is the national motto.
Taking things slowly hasn't produced radical change, but it has avoided reactionary spasms that would threaten the existence of democracy.
Yudhoyono's approach may give some ground on the periphery, but it's likely to ensure that when he steps down in 2014, as post-1998 constitutional changes require, he'll be replaced by another legally elected leader.
However, his great failure isn't his apparent compulsion to find common ground, but a lack of his own clear positions. Rather than using his powers of conciliation and splitting the difference to move toward a goal, he winds up deploying it reactively, to control damage by others who aggressively promote their own positions. That means the country isn't moving on any particular path, and there's no policy legacy for Yudhoyono's successor. Some may shrug and say that that is hardly surprising, since in Indonesia political campaigning is largely about masking, rather than pronouncing, policy.
Yudhoyono's caution may strengthen the institution of elections, but - dangerously - it doesn't create a grassroots constituency for democracy itself. The Indonesian people elected Yudhoyono, but if he's not creating a more honest and responsive government, they will rightly wonder about the entire premise of voting for a leader. There's no shortage of populist demagogues, from military men to mullahs, ready to use the system Yudhoyono nurtured to exploit growing dissatisfaction with it.
Carefully but clearly, Yudhoyono has to connect the practice of democracy to the practice of government for the people, which sadly hasn't yet been linked in Indonesia.
Longtime editor of investor rights advocate eRaider.com, Gary LaMoshihas written for Slate and Salon.com, and works a counselor for Writing Camp (www.writingcamp.net). He first visited Indonesia in 1994 and has tracking its progress ever since.