Rough start for Indonesia leader

President Susilo's promises of reform are bogged down amid controversy over appointments, human rights.

When Indonesians voted out their president in favor of a self-styled reformer, the September election was hailed as a sign of political maturity in the Islamic world's largest democracy. But just 10 weeks later, his brief honeymoon is over.

From controversy over the appointment of Suharto-era officials to questions about the recent murder of a prominent human rights activist, Mr. Susilo is finding governing harder than campaigning. The president's slender grip over parliament and his many political enemies will seriously challenge any reform agenda.

"He had the opportunity, but so far he's missed it," says H.S. Dillon, executive director of the Partnership for Governance Reform, an anticorruption watchdog. "If he fails, I can't foresee what will happen to this country."

Susilo won a landslide 61 percent of the vote in Indonesia's first direct presidential elections, ousting his rival, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri. He vowed "shock therapy" in the first 100 days to prove he was serious about reform. Susilo promised to fire ministers found to be corrupt and to create jobs in thousands of poor villages. He's also vowed to crack down on terrorists, building on his work as a former security minister.

"Enforcing existing laws matters more than creating new laws," says Kevin O'Rourke, author of Reformasi, a book on Indonesian politics.

In April's parliamentary elections, Susilo's fledgling Democrat Party won only 57 of parliament's 550 seats. An alliance of Susilo's political rivals, the Nationhood Coalition, controls around 309 seats. Golkar, the ruling party under former President Suharto, is the largest member. The PDI-P, the party of the former president, is the second largest.

"We're not trying to be destructive," said Paskah Suzetta, Golkar member and chairman of parliament's influential finance committee. "We're just aiming to be a loyal opposition."

Although Susilo has formed his own alliance, the People's Coalition, critics fear his lack of control over the legislature will hold back reforms needed to translate his vision into a program. Party insiders say negotiations over the cabinet, announced Oct. 21, were dominated by fierce infighting. And though the president had promised a "professional cabinet," political appointees dominated the 34 ministries.

Indonesia's senior economics minister, Aburizal Bakrie, was the most controversial appointment. With $121.9 million in personal wealth, Bakrie is Indonesia's richest official, most of it acquired through his company, PT Bakrie and Brothers, which had numerous ties to the family of former President Suharto.

"We are worried that cronyism in business will return," says Teten Masduki, chairman of the Indonesian Corruption Watch, a transparency watchdog.

But even skeptics like Mr. Teten say that Bakrie's deep knowledge of how the bureaucracy works could be an asset in attacking graft. Some of cabinet's "technocrat" appointments, such as University of California at Davis-educated economist Mari Pangestu have praised Bakrie's role in creating an economic "road map" for recovery. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly identified Pangestu's education.]

But the appointment of ministers like Bakrie from the Golkar Party doesn't seem to have won over the parliament.

The house almost deadlocked in November, splitting into rival camps. The Nationhood Coalition, made up of Susilo's political rivals, moved to block the president's choice for an armed forces chief. In response, Susilo ordered his ministers not to attend parliamentary meetings.

Further bickering broke out over important parliamentary commissions, which are now all controlled by Golkar. The deadlock came to an end on Nov.18 when the parliament's factions approved an extension to the six-month military emergency in Indonesia's troubled Aceh province.

November also brought a disturbing reminder of Indonesia's past rights abuses when Dutch forensic investigators determined that outspoken human rights advocate Munir (who only used one name) had died by arsenic poisoning on a flight from Singapore to Amsterdam in September.

Ori Rahman, a friend and colleague of Munir's, says, "[The killer] had hoped the fight for human rights would fade away with Munir's death." The activist and his nongovernmental organization, Kontras, had exposed human rights abuses throughout the Indonesian archipelago, often involving Indonesia's military, the TNI. Police are now leading a criminal investigation into the murder.

Mr. Ori says they have little hope of resolving human rights questions under a former military figure such as Susilo, a three-star general. "It would be difficult given [his] emotional attachments," he says.

But resolving those abuses will be key to Susilo's relations with the US. Congress has ruled that military aid to Indonesia be cut off until those involved in violence surrounding East Timor's 1999 independence referendum are brought to trial. But the credibility of Indonesia's judiciary was damaged further in early November, critics say, when the Supreme Court acquitted Abilio Soares, the only Indonesian to be convicted for human rights abuses.

Publicly, Susilo has shown concern. In late November, the president apologized in person to Munir's widow, Suciwati, and he vowed to back an independent commission to investigate the murder.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.