Thu, 12 Feb 2004

Leave the cabinet

At least two questions beg to be answered regarding the statement of Coordinator Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Jusuf Kalla that they would leave the Cabinet as soon as they are officially named presidential candidates for the July elections. Government officials who plan to contest the national elections are also expected to follow suit.

Minister of Justice and Human Rights Yusril Ihza Mahendra has also expressed interest in going up against Megawati, and thus he must also fulfill the same obligation. Along with other aspirants, they will challenge incumbent President Megawati Soekarnoputri in the country's first direct presidential elections.

The first question is in regards timing. As Susilo and Jusuf have publicly announced their presidential ambitions, why should they wait until the last minute to leave the Cabinet? This behavior might give a strong impression that the ministers do not want to risk leaving the privileges they had enjoyed in the Cabinet.

The newly established Democratic Party (Partai Demokrasi) has announced its patron, Susilo, as its presidential candidate, but he can only contest the race if the party wins at least 3 percent of votes in the legislative election on April 5.

It is widely speculated that many other parties are also keeping Susilo's name in their pockets as a potential nominee. Some observers even say that the retired general only needs give other parties the nod if he would be satisfied with the vice presidency. Many people are impressed with the Susilo's performance as a minister under President Abdurrahman Wahid, then Megawati, although many also doubt his achievements.

Jusuf, on the other hand, is now on the list among seven possible Golkar candidates. The party has decided that its final selection would be made only after the April election.

Still, it would not only be more dignified, but also more statesmanlike for both Susilo and Kalla to abandon their government posts now, as they have made up their minds to run for president. They must take the risk and not just play safe.

Remaining in the cabinet means that they are the incumbent President's men, and that they would be willing to share Megawati's platform for the next five years assuming that she wins the election.

In this context, they must take part in the government's public accountability, at least morally. There is enough time for the two ministers to set an example for the nation by showing that they truly intend to run for the presidency to serve the country, and not just to realize their personal political ambitions.

As the current cabinet's term is up in October, the two need not worry that their absence will affect the government's performance significantly. Megawati can appoint new ministers to the vacant positions, or have others take over them.

The second question is in regards the President, who is also chairperson of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI- P), and Vice President Hamzah Haz, chairman of the United Development Party (PPP).

The two parties have endorsed their respective leaders to run for president. It is natural that Megawati and Hamzah are to campaign for their parties in the legislative election, the result of which will determine their political future. In July, Megawati, and possibly also Hamzah, will contest the presidential election.

Should Megawati and Hamzah then resign from their current positions as demanded by some parties? Or should they just take a brief leave of absence during their party campaigns, as suggested by Hamzah?

First of all, it is unrealistic to demand that the two leaders abandon their posts to campaign in April and July. It is nothing new that party leaders become heads of state -- this has happened in the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and many other countries.

What the nation needs is clear campaigning rules for state officials, including the president and vice president. They are not to use state facilities or to receive special treatment in any form while campaigning. When touring the regions, only their party members may accommodate their visit -- not local government officials. No excuses or pretexts that would break these conditions must be tolerated.

To reiterate, Susilo and Jusuf, as well as Yusril, should leave the cabinet immediately if they want to realize their presidential ambitions. They must set an example for the people and be ready to sacrifice all state privileges entailing their current posts.

As for Megawati and Hamzah, there is no need for them to resign just to hit the campaign trail. But it is the responsibility of the entire nation, not just the General Elections Commission (KPU), to ensure that neither use any state facilities while campaigning. We must trust that the two are fully aware of the distinction between their party and state duties.