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Yudhoyono’s courage and cowardice
Jun 18th 2008
Indonesia’s leader displays a bit of both
INDONESIA’S president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is said to have suffered sleepless nights recently. This is not surprising: Mr Yudhoyono, a habitually cautious man, has had a couple of tough decisions to take. He was courageous with one and cowardly with the other.
The first of these—to cut fuel subsidies sharply in response to soaring oil prices—was sensible but brave, especially as Mr Yudhoyono will have to face the voters just over a year from now. On his second big decision—whether to cave in to Islamist hardliners’ demands to ban Ahmadiyah, an unorthodox sect—he tried to fudge but still came out looking weak.
Although the group will not be disbanded, it will be prohibited, under a government decree, from preaching its views publicly—in particular its belief that Muhammad was not the final prophet. Mr Yudhoyono’s vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, says attempts will also be made to persuade the group to accept conventional Muslim teachings. Besides being a clear breach of the Ahmadis’ freedom of religion, the decision will encourage Islamist thugs to continue their campaign of violence against the group.
The decision on subsidies raised fuel prices by around 30%, and triggered protests more widespread than those instigated against Ahmadiyah by Islamist hardliners. But presumably Mr Yudhoyono is hoping for a repeat of 2005, when he cut subsidies and the protests faded without much violence. To soften the blow, some of the money saved will be used to provide cash and rice to around 19m of the poorest Indonesians.
By contrast, there is plenty of reason to fear serious violence from the militants behind the attacks on Ahmadiyah. On June 1st, two hardline groups, the Islamic Defenders Front and Laskar Islam, attacked a gathering near the presidential palace in Jakarta of campaigners for religious tolerance, beating them with sticks and injuring 34. They have also repeatedly attacked Ahmadis’ homes and mosques.
Militants in this largely secular and moderate country have grown violent because the police have stood back and failed to stop them. This, in turn, is because the president and his ministers have been slow to condemn the militants’ thuggish behaviour.
The public outcry that followed the June 1st attack finally forced the authorities to act. Several leaders of both militant groups have been arrested, and Mr Yudhoyono has finally got around to condemning them. But, having had their demands at least partly satisfied by the decree curbing Ahmadiyah’s freedoms, the militants are vowing to keep up their violent campaign until they achieve a full ban.
Ahmadis and other opponents of the decree are equally unlikely to let the matter rest: a case may be brought in the Constitutional Court, which is notably more independent than the country’s other courts. Freedom campaigners are also planning to file a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Mr Yudhoyono presumably thought he could make the controversy go away with his half-baked decree, but he is likely to face more sleepless nights.
Campaigning for the July 2009 presidential and congressional elections has started. Mr Yudhoyono’s predecessor and would-be successor, Megawati Sukarnoputri, is already on the trail. General Wiranto, a former army chief who stood last time, has formed a new political party and will likely run again. Mr Kalla is also said to fancy the top job.
Since the world’s most populous majority-Muslim democracy staged its first direct presidential election, in 2004, the economy has grown briskly. A long separatist war in Aceh province has ended in what looks like a durable peace deal—another commendable act of courage by Mr Yudhoyono. There has been modest progress in curbing official corruption—one of the president’s main campaign promises.
But much has been left undone: Mr Yudhoyono has not reformed the labour laws, as he promised. That might have encouraged business growth and job creation in a country with widespread unemployment and underemployment. He has also been reluctant to push other tricky but necessary reforms through Congress, preferring inaction to the risk of failure.
It is a shame that Mr Yudhoyono, for all his eloquence as a speech-maker, has not been bolder but, so far, voters seem inclined to forgive his weaknesses. Polls show he is well ahead of any likely challenger. Indeed, the only person with a decent chance of beating him right now would be that former Indonesian schoolboy made good, Barack Obama—whose nomination has caused tremendous excitement in the country of his youth. But he’s also a bit of a waffler, so it's not clear if he would be much improvement on the incumbent.