THERE are myriad reasons why Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (often called SBY), ought to be worried as the days count down to the country’s presidential election on July 8th. Only a quarter of the measures he promised in 2004 to improve the investment climate have been implemented. Desperately needed infrastructure development has been sluggish. Legal and judicial reforms have been patchy. Little progress has been made on improving labour-market regulation. The armed forces are so under-financed that aircraft crashes have become a monthly occurrence.
Meanwhile official poverty and unemployment rates, at 14.2% and 8.2% respectively, are much higher than he promised when he was first elected. Health-service delivery is widely considered woeful. Religious minorities believe they are more fiercely persecuted than five years ago. Then there is the minor matter of the world’s worst recession in decades, which has taken its toll throughout South-East Asia’s export-oriented economies.
And, to the dismay of many, Mr Yudhoyono (pictured centre, above) chose as his campaign slogan “Lanjutkan”, which translates roughly as “More of the same”. “Yes, we can!”, it isn’t.
Yet the former general with a PhD in agricultural economics appears to be anything but worried. The three-week campaign in the world’s third-largest democracy looks more like a stroll to a coronation than a scrap for survival.
If the opinion polls are correct - and they were pretty accurate before April’s legislative elections - Mr Yudhoyono is not only going to do far better than his two challengers, but is going to win outright with more than 50% of votes cast and more than 20% in half the country’s 33 provinces (a requirement in vast Indonesia to ensure presidents have some support everywhere). This would eliminate the need for a second-round run-off in September.
His standing as favourite has been a consequence of luck and skill. The timing of the rise and fall of the oil price has been fortuitous. Oil peaked a year ago. This was actually bad for Mr Yudhoyono’s popularity in the short term, since he had to raise domestic fuel prices sharply in order to keep control of the government’s ballooning oil-subsidy bill. Then, when oil prices fell, the president was able to cut prices of subsidised fuel, used by 90% of the population, three times.
But the initial cut in expensive domestic fuel subsidies made it easier for the government to afford to resurrect direct cash transfers to the 19.4m poorest families. Many cite the payments as their main reason for deciding to vote for Mr Yudhoyono, who never tires of reminding voters who introduced them.
The president has also been helped by his two challengers’ insipid campaigning. Megawati Sukarnoputri, his predecessor (pictured above left), was a mediocre president and has failed to attract Yudhoyono waverers. Jusuf Kalla, the president’s deputy (above right), cannot convincingly take more credit for the government’s successes than the incumbent; he also suffers for having built up a family business empire in what are now seen as the bad old days. Even more than Mr Yudhoyono, they appear as relics of the authoritarian Suharto era. That is partly because of their running-mates. Mrs Megawati and Mr Kalla are both paired with Suharto-era generals. Mr Yudhoyono (who was one himself) is running with a respected former central bank governor and finance minister.
Despite many chances, none of the challengers has landed serious blows on Mr Yudhoyono, or even forced him on to the defensive for long. This has highlighted the fact that Indonesia’s 11-year transition to democratic maturity has yet to reach the stage of peaceful disagreement. The media’s inability to hold Mr Yudhoyono to account has accentuated that. No one wants to rock the boat too hard. The president has therefore been able to get away with a largely defensive campaign, making few promises and claiming - with some justification - that voting for his opponents would be a step backwards.He looks unassailable
Mr Yudhoyono must also take some personal credit for his position. He has a graft-free reputation, not exactly a common feature of Indonesian politics. The war against endemic corruption has made great strides in the past five years, though this has more to do with the independent Anti-Corruption Commission than with Mr Yudhoyono himself. And while economic growth has slowed, it is still running at over 4% a year, while the neighbours are all in or teetering close to recession.
The government handled the crisis of late 2008 successfully, letting the rupiah weaken (it has since recovered), and borrowing to shore up revenues (it took out a $5.5bn standby loan co-ordinated by the World Bank in case stormy times returned, for instance). Most poor people, meanwhile, acknowledge what the government has done for them and are choosing to credit the president for it.
It is noticeable that Islam, and religion more broadly, has played only a small role in this election, though Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. The Islamic-oriented parties performed poorly in April’s legislative election. They are still struggling to work out why and to stop the rot.
If, as seems likely, Mr Yudhoyono becomes the first Indonesian president to be democratically re-elected, he might also end up - depending on the size of the turnout and margin - as the president with the largest number of direct votes in the world (that position is now held by Barack Obama, with 66.9m votes). The great question then would be how he might use what would be an unprecedented mandate.