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Need for speed in Indonesia JAKARTA - Two years into his five-year term, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono presents himself as a sincere, hard-working reformer, a long-distance runner pacing himself on a marathon run. But many Indonesians think the country needs a sprinter.

The Indonesian people are losing patience. For almost a decade they endured political paralysis and economic crisis. Tens of thousands of people died in religious and ethnic strife, many hundreds of thousands more lost their homes and livelihood; millions of children were deprived of an education. So today, more than eight years since the fall of the dictator Suharto, there is a palpable desire to see more progress.

Yudhoyono's principal achievement to date has been to preserve and consolidate the democratic transition achieved by his election in 2004. No one questions his legitimacy, and this stability has helped restore domestic social harmony and foreign investor confidence. Hundreds of local elections have been held peacefully up and down the vast archipelago, giving real meaning to local autonomy.

When Yudhoyono, a former army general, came to power in October 2004, he vowed to continue the peace process he started in 1999 aimed at settling the long-running conflict in Aceh province. Peace finally came to Aceh in August 2005, and the agreement, reached with rebel leaders after years of tough negotiation, is holding.

Yudhoyono's ability to win the support and confidence of the military has also helped fashion an effective counter-terrorism strategy. Disgruntled conservatives may snipe and conspire from the sidelines, but there is no longer widespread fear in society that people's rights will be abused by men in uniform. Critics mainly focus on the government's reluctance to punish those responsible for committing crimes before Indonesia's transition to democracy.

Creeping extremism

But while the president has worked assiduously to bring peace to Aceh, rein in the worst of military abuses and combat terror, he has paid less attention to other polarizing forces in Indonesian society, forces that threaten the foundations of Indonesia as a moderate Muslim nation. On Yudhoyono's watch, the forces of Islamic extremism have made headway. The number of districts governed by conservative sharia law has more than doubled. This isn't just a concern for foreign investors and allies in the "war against terror". Many Indonesians are worried that parliament will pass a law criminalizing many aspects of entertainment that Indonesians consider a hallmark of their tolerant society.

The president has been slow to assure this substantial majority of Indonesian citizens of his commitment to pluralism. He has allowed militant groups to operate without outlawing them and stood by as minorities have been persecuted. As in neighboring Malaysia, the forces of Islamic extremism are slowly gaining ground. Among Indonesians there are also mounting concerns about the economy. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth is falling short of the 6% target set by the government last year and since has been revised downward. A high-profile drive to attract investment in infrastructure has fallen flat, and business executives grumble that much of what the president is doing for reform is to polish his image. In fact, as far as the business community is concerned, much of the credit for economic management goes to Yudhoyono's feisty vice president, Jusuf Kalla.

Critics point to the president's slow decision-making. With almost 50 people dead from avian influenza, there is an urgent need for more commitment to a strategy to tackle the virus before it becomes a pandemic. Economists say he should order another increase in domestic fuel prices to reduce the fiscal burden of subsidies. Inflation in August was running at around 15%.

Yet understandable impatience must be weighed against the benefits of better-quality leadership. Yudhoyono's poor family background and his marriage into a family with a proud military heritage have forged a beneficial blend of empathy and idealism - both rare qualities in Indonesian elite circles.

S Two years on and the rampant corruption and abuse of power associated with previous Indonesian leaders are scarcely evident. The president's identification with the common people is still strong, as demonstrated by his swift reaction to natural disasters such as the recent Central Java earthquake and a new commitment to spend US$1.5 billion on poverty alleviation next year.

Even so, many Indonesians worry about the rot that still afflicts the rest of the bureaucracy and urge Yudhoyono to make speedier decisions and show more muscle. Yudhoyono is said to be reluctant to stick his neck out too far in a political environment where, despite his popular mandate, he still feels insecure. Two years on and he still hasn't built a strong party platform in parliament and relies instead on a shaky alliance of smaller secular and Islamic parties.

The worry is that having survived longer than his two immediate predecessors, Yudhoyono may feel tempted to slow down even more. That would be a mistake. The Indonesian people have lost a lot of time already. With his popularity waning, now is the time to start sprinting. Michael Vatikiotis is senior visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Posted in Politics @ 20 September 2006 14:47 CET by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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