JAKARTA - An estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people gathered across Jakarta on Thursday to mark the 100th day of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's second term in office. Waving banners and shouting into bullhorns, students, workers and activists lashed out against the former general's failure to curb high-level graft in government.
Their numbers at present pose little real challenge to the second-term president. While many here criticize him as weak and ineffectual, his leadership still represents a significant improvement on past heavy-handed military and incompetent democratic leaders.
Leading Indonesia through five years of relative political and economic stability helped Yudhoyono win a landslide re-election in July. With an even stronger mandate headed into his second
term, for which he was sworn into office last October, Yudhoyono set out an ambitious agenda for his first 100 days, including vows to eradicate corruption, take action to help curb global warming, and move to revitalize the security forces to better combat terrorism.
Three months later, critics say the president has done little other than draft policy blueprints. Court battles over a failed bank bailout and corruption allegations that followed have stymied his early efforts to achieve substantial action. Kevin O'Rourke, a political analyst at Reformasi Weekly, said it was politically risky to take on such an ambitious agenda in such a short timeframe.
He said reforms on the economic front have progressed, with more than 50 of the 130 action items aimed at the economy completed. O'Rourke said there is still an off-chance that Yudhoyono could still sign off on a flurry of new regulations before the government's 100-day marker, which falls on Monday.
At the outset of his term, Yudhoyono's decision to pad his cabinet with reformist technocrats, such as Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, and the creation of a presidential unit tasked with removing development bottlenecks, seemed to bode well for his reform agenda. Analysts hoped he would leverage the support of his ruling coalition, which controls three-fourths of the seats in parliament, to push through early amendments to the labor law, which faced stiff resistance during his first term.
But his perceived commitment to fighting graft has ebbed amid an investigation into the US$715 million bailout of failed lender Bank Century. Yudhoyono has denied accusations that he funded his re-election campaign with money siphoned from the bank's rescue, which critics have noted amounted to nearly $575 million more than the finance ministry originally projected.
So far no evidence has surfaced to implicate the president in foul play. But Al Araf, the program director for security issues at human-rights monitor Imparsial, blames the bad publicity surrounding the Bank Century case for the president's failure to address more serious problems, including military reform.
With its image suffering, the government has continued to point to its relative success in weathering the 2008 global financial crisis. But Irwan Omar, director of political risk firm iNusantara, said the rhetoric has raised expectations at a time when government spending programs have been slow to trickle down to the grass roots level.
Thursday's protests sought among other things to counter government claims about marked economic improvements. "It's not fiscal policy that has helped the economy but people adapting to the structural pressures of economic development," said Irwansyah, vice chairman of Perhimpunan Rakyat Rekerjam, or Working People's Association, which led protests under a People's Opposition Front (FOR) banner in 20 cities across Indonesia.
Irwansyah referred to studies by international aid group Oxfam and other non-governmental organizations that have shown how Indonesian workers took their own initiative to adapt to the economic crisis. Around 70% of Indonesia's total work force is employed in the informal sector, according to Irwansyah.
He claims that most have not been trained to deal with increasing global competition and are likely to be hit hard by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations-China free-trade agreement (FTA), which came into force this month and could lead to an influx of cheap Chinese goods such as textiles and footwear into Indonesian markets.
Yudhoyono has played down those concerns, saying that the FTA will benefit local businesses that can now export more goods to China. But Irwansyah and others believe those comments underscore the notion that Yudhoyono's government is too outward-looking in the implementation of his economic policies.
"It's not a success story for the Indonesian people," the labor leader said, referring to statements from the United States and elsewhere that applaud Yudhoyono's efforts to root out terrorism and boost economic growth.
For its part, FOR is pushing for full transparency in government, especially in the notoriously graft-ridden judiciary and police. Other groups have more extremely called for Yudhoyono's impeachment, but Irwansyah said the goal among the workers and trade unions he represents is to change the system by showing that the government is no longer legitimate.
"Only through these [corruption] scandals do people have information about how easy it is to manipulate policymakers," he said. "It's about getting people to see we no longer trust him."
Erwin Usman, deputy director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Wahli), also took part in Thursday's demonstrations to protest against government policies that he claims prioritize international investment over the welfare of local communities. "The government allows capital from multinational companies to control how it manages its natural resources," said Erwin, explaining that indigenous people are often deprived of their land in favor of companies involved in mining or palm oil plantations.
Despite the street-level criticism, editors at the English-language Jakarta Globe newspaper penned an editorial on Wednesday calling Yudhoyono "our best choice as president of Indonesia and also the people's clear choice as the best man to lead this country".
While Yudhoyono's popularity has dropped from the 90% recorded just after his re-election, nearly 70% of the population still supports him, according to a recently released poll by the Indonesian Survey Institute. When compared with other leaders in the region, including in Thailand, which competes for foreign direct investment while enduring revolving-door governments, Yudhoyono has had success in pushing reforms.
Significantly, Indonesia's recent political hiccups, including recent street protests, have not undermined foreign confidence in the country's direction. Credit rating agency Fitch upgraded Indonesia's sovereign credit rating on Tuesday to its highest level since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis. That's at least one vote in favor of Yudhoyono's first 100 days in office.
Sara Schonhardt is a freelance writer based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She has lived and worked in Southeast Asia for six years and has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University.