A NEW CHALLENGE TO INDONESIA'S PRESIDENT MEGAWATI
by Andreas Harsono
American Reporter Correspondent
JAKARTA, Indonesia, March 17, 2004 -- When Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a top security minister in Indonesia's cabinet, decided to tender his resignation to President Megawati Sukarnoputri last Thursday, many of his closest advisors applauded and welcomed that decision. They assumed that Susilo would soon start to fight for his own political party and to run in the 2004 presidential election in July.
Officially, Susilo explained that Megawati had frozen him out. He was being sidelined in his cabinet position. "My relationship with the President was disrupted. It was becoming difficult to keep doing my job properly," he said.
But it is a public secret that the Megawati camp was far from pleased with Susilo being a top presidential challenger. Taufik Kiemas, Megawati's husband, himself an influential politician in her Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle, showed his irritation when telling the media that Susilo had quietly campaigned on television when other candidates were still waiting for the campaign to start on March 11.
Kiemas was referring to a public service advertisement in which Susilo appeared in his ministerial capacity and called on the public to have a "peaceful general election." It was an unusual advertisement, although the logic was acceptable. Who refuses peace in this new emerging democracy of 220 people? But that ad was considered by Megawati's camp as a breach of the election code.
Time is indeed very precious in a political campaign in this vast Asian archipelago of more than 3,000 islands. Indonesians will vote on April 5 and political parties have only three weeks to campaign. It is going to be a three-step election. Parliamentary elections will be held in April, the presidential election in July, and if no candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote, which is very likely, a final presidential election will be held in September.
But how about the other ministers? Megawati's cabinet has three other presidential candidates, who include Vice President Hamzah Haz, Law and Human Rights Minister Yusril Ihsa Mahendra, and Coordinating Minister for Social Welfare Yusuf Kalla? They also campaigned quietly.
Megawati herself also appeared in television advertisements on Ramadan, Christmas, and Chinese New Year holidays last year. She was not alone. Other party leaders also took advantages of such holidays to show their presence and to send their thinly-veiled political messages. Who's stealing the show?
Television is a hugely important medium in Indonesia. According to a survey by the International Republican Institute, released last December, 90 percent of the polled citizens in Indonesia named tv as their source of information about politics. Only four percent got it from radios and only two percent from newspapers. So politicians who would like to reach as many voters as possible, like it or not, whether costly or cheap, have to use television.
Public surveys also become more and more important in Indonesia's politics. Party workers use poll results to design their political strategies. Perhaps that's a familiar practice in old democracies, but not in Indonesia, which only witnessed the fall of authoritarian ruler Suharto in May 1998. Now Indonesia is an emerging democracy. For the country's privately-owned media, freedom of expression is guaranteed. Indonesia's civil servants and servicemen must not intervene in politics as they used to under Suharto. Citizens today are free to vote for their favortie candidates.
Some polls showed that Susilo is the second most popular presidential candidate after Megawati. The International Foundation on Election Systems released a poll in February which placed Susilo second after Megawati. "The different was only zero point something, but the margin of error was 2.8 percent, meaning that SBY is, on paper, as popular as Megawati," said Denny JA, the executive director of the Jakarta-based Indonesian Survey Institute (LSI). Susilo is affectionately known by his initial.
Denny said that Susilo's popularity has consistently increased since last year, while Megawati's kept decreasing. Several parties, including the Crescent Star Party, the National Mandate Party, the Nation Awakening Party and some of the newer parties have publicly said they were considering nominating Susilo as either their presidential or vice presidential candidate.
In Susilo's case, popularity is the key word. Denny said that Susilo was recognized by name by about 60 to 70 percent of voters while Megawati is by almost all. But 68 percent of those who know Susilo said that they like him, as if to say that they are very likely to vote for him in the July presidential election. Only 50 percent of those who know Megawati said that they like her.
"It's a matter of increasing the public awareness," said Denny, adding that Susilo is already widely perceived to be a humble and polite person. He is also known as a retired four-star general. These descriptions go well with the needs of voters who long for the political stability and economic growth of the President Suharto period. Voters are also tired of political bickering among politicians. They need someone who is polite.
So it was no coincidence that Susilo quit on the first day of the election campaign. It was also a very well-calculated decision. Televisions and newspapers immediately headlined his resignation. His widely-noted popularity rose once again. Voters see him as an honest person who resigned politely. Megawati also responded with her typical good manners. So it was a pleasant kind of politics. Now, however, they are going to struggle openly.
But Susilo's political goal are possible only if he is nominated as a presidential candidate by a coalition of political parties that control a significant number of seats in Parliament. On April 24, parties will compete in the election. But if he is nominated by his tiny Democrat Party only, observers say, forget it. The party is new and few voters have heard about it. So he still needs a lot of political groundwork. Indonesian politics have never been predictable, but it is going to be exciting to watch the political campaign this tiome around.
AR Correspondent Andreas Harsono won a Nieman Internal Fellowship at Harvard in 2000 for his groundbreaking reporting about the fall of Indonesian dictator Suharto in 1997. He lives in Jakarta.