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Indonesia: Versatile 'S-B-Y' Inaugurated As Country's First Directly Elected President

  • Don Hill

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono -- known to his countrymen simply as S-B-Y -- took office yesterday as Indonesia's first directly elected president. He is a man of contrasts. A general and his country's one-time security chief, Yudhoyono is respected for his intellectual bent and cautious decision-making style. He made a name for himself with his antiterrorism efforts and then established himself as a popular leader in a country whose 220 million people make it the world's largest Islamic-majority state. RFE/RL reports that Yudhoyono has singled out the economy, corruption, and terrorism as his first priorities.

Prague, 20 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Sometimes, timing is everything.

With Indonesia's national anthem echoing, Yudhoyono was inaugurated yesterday as the country's first directly elected president.

Yudhoyono left the Indonesian Army in 2000 to join the government of Abdurrahman Wahid, was promoted to four-star general as a consequence, and became chief minister for security and political affairs. A year later, facing impeachment, Wahid asked Yudhoyono to declare a state of emergency. Yudhoyono refused and was sacked.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the woman he now has succeeded, reappointed him as security minister. He took a leading role in Indonesia's fight against terrorism after the Bali bombing in 2002. His speech on the attack's anniversary established him as a major figure in Indonesian politics.
Yudhoyono took a leading role in Indonesia's fight against terrorism after the Bali bombing in 2002. His speech on the attack's anniversary established him as a major figure in Indonesian politics.

In March, however, he quarreled with Megawati and her husband and resigned.

The BBC quoted Denny Ja, executive director of the Indonesian Survey Institute, as saying that, in the end, losing those two jobs helped Yudhoyono win the presidency for himself. Ja put it this way: "Even though Yudhoyono was a senior member of a deeply unpopular government, he has come to be seen as a victim of that government rather than part of it."

Now, the new president finds himself expected to improve a depressed economy that his predecessor was blamed for extending.

Economist Anne Booth at the University of London said Yudhoyono's timing is once again impeccable.

"As far as the economy is concerned, I think actually he is facing an [already] improving situation," Booth said. "I mean, growth rates have been picking up over the last two years. [And] certainly this year, calendar year 2004, the non-oil economy is probably likely to grow at a little more than 5 percent."

After he defeated Megawati with 61 percent of the vote earlier this year, Yudhoyono demonstrated both timing and delicacy. He canceled a victory speech when she delayed conceding defeat. While he didn't formally claim victory, he announced that he was preparing a program for his first 100 days.

Richard Cousens, a scholar at Britain's Center for Defense and International Security Studies, said Yudhoyono will likely enjoy a honeymoon -- a time of lowered expectations -- during his first few months in office.

"In the eyes of the world, he will have a honeymoon period because he is a very charismatic and popular figure, although his policy pronouncements have been fairly opaque," Cousens said. "But the fact that Indonesia had an election that was universally regarded as fair and that a Muslim country of that size had an election like that proves that Islam and democracy can go hand in hand."

But Cousens said Indonesia's new leader doesn't have time to waste: "Within Indonesia, his primary mandate is to stamp out corruption. And I suspect that is the area on which will be judged. And, inevitably, that will be a difficult task to achieve quickly."

Cousens said the wider world will probably be watching Yudhoyono closely for his efforts at guarding against and defeating terrorism, but that Indonesians have concerns closer to home:

"He will be judged, I think, externally by [his antiterrorism efforts], but I wonder whether that is a primary concern to the Indonesia population at large, to whom I would assess that corruption is probably a bigger issue," Cousens said.

Economist Booth said she considers Yudhoyono better equipped than most in Indonesia to cope intelligently with the threat of terrorism.

"I met him once at a seminar in The Hague a few years ago, and actually at that seminar he was speaking particularly about his experience leading the Indonesian contingent --- the peacekeeping contingent --- to Bosnia in the mid-1990s," Booth said. "He's had that experience, which of course few Indonesian army officers have had, and I think it has probably given him a much broader understanding of the nature of international terrorism."

She said she believes Yudhoyono is, in fact, the sensitive and thoughtful man his supporters say he is. But she said she perceives a streak of a military man's steel beneath the politician's velvet.

"He is a very thoughtful person," Booth said. "Certainly when you meet him, he gives the impression that he considers any question carefully and always gives a well-argued answer. Having said that, [I remember also that] he has come up through the military, and I think underneath the urbane and very cultured exterior there is a fairly tough military officer there. And I think he'll be decisive if he has to be. He could even be ruthless, and perhaps he will be ruthless."

The new president was born on the Indonesian island of Java in 1949. The Javanese do not have surnames in the Western sense, which is why his nickname -- S-B-Y -- has stuck.

Yudhoyono can be expected to be as friendly toward the United States as political prudence permits in a country where tens of thousands have demonstrated against the U.S.-led war in Iraq. He studied in American universities and received training from the U.S. military.

He also is believed to be eager to cooperate closely with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who was recently reelected for a fourth term. Howard was in Jakarta for the inauguration ceremony.