By Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, Jakarta
The people have spoken. The message clear and
overwhelming: Megawati, pack your bags!
She helped sooth the volatility of the young
democracy, but Megawati’s patrician manner while in
power endeared her to few and her aloofness alienated
many. Despite ascending to power as an agent of the
wong cilik (common people), Megawati’s three-year rule
only perpetuated the kind of detached and autocratic
government that has typified Indonesian leadership
since the time of her father. From first president
Sukarno’s personality cult, Soeharto’s “kingship” to
Abdurrahman Wahid’s ecclesiastical self-righteousness,
the country has had sovereigns rather than leaders of
In many ways, the system helped perpetuate the
leadership of the new nobility — Sukarno never faced
elections and, like his daughter, was effectively
appointed president; Soeharto’s leadership was
sustained by manipulating the electoral system; B.J.
Habibie became president by default; Abdurrahman was
chosen as president through political negotiations;
while Megawati rose to power on the back of a
That is not to say that the president-elect is
Indonesia’s new man of the people. That is a
distinction he will have to earn, not inherit.
Stronger checks and balances have been put in place to
reduce the potential for abuse of power. But Soeharto
has taught us how vulnerable to subversion
constitutions can be.
Ultimately it will be the commitment to democratic
ideals, even at the price of one’s own power, that
will determine whether Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono can
resist the corruption that often comes hand in hand
With the elections over, it is now possible to
objectively separate the campaign ballyhoo from the
substance. It is worth critically assessing the
personality of Indonesia’s sixth president to predict
possible pitfalls that could lead him to stray from
the democratic path.
Like Megawati during the initial phase of her
political career, Susilo carries with him the hopes of
the people. But the comparison ends there.
Susilo, unlike Megawati, was trained and educated to
lead. Respect comes not from lineage, but from his
career as a military officer to astute minister. In
other words, people listen to what he says out of
respect, not out of fear.
He finished top of his class at the Armed Forces
Academy in 1973, graduating with a record number of
merit medals. He was then sent to Fort Benning in the
United States to attend an Airborne and Ranger Course.
Susilo’s military career was helped along by his
marriage to the daughter of Lt. Gen. Sarwo Edhie
Wibowo, a respected officer and once an associate of
Susilo’s frontline experience included tours of duty
in East Timor. His ability to manage men of different
backgrounds shone through when he commanded the 744th
Infantry Battalion, which was largely composed of East
Timorese. He then went back to school, attending the
U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College, and
Webster University, where he earned a Masters Degree
He continued his distinguished career by heading a UN
contingent in Bosnia, and then the Sriwijaya Military
Command in South Sumatra. The pinnacle of his military
career came in 1998, when he became Armed Forces’
chief of sociopolitical affairs, and later chief of
Though he is thought to be relatively untainted by the
sort of self-enrichment schemes normally associated
with individuals of his standing in Indonesia, we
should continue to keep an eye out for past
associations that could come back to haunt his
It was widely rumored that to offset his lack of a
party network and infrastructure, he has become
increasingly surrounded by people engaged in ambiguous
activities over the last six months.
Much has also been made of Susilo being a
non-civilian, and therefore a potential propagator of
militarism. The military is certainly near and dear to
him. It is not a profession for him, it is his life.
This became obvious in 1999, when Susilo was
uncomfortable being made Minister of Mines and Energy
as it would mean early retirement from the military.
But to say that he has militaristic tendencies would
be inaccurate. He is genuinely perceived as one of the
few generals in the TNI who is more a thinker than a
combat specialist. Since the late 1980s, Susilo has
been one of the Army’s leading advocates of reform. At
the Army’s Staff and Command School in 1989, he was
already submitting proposals urging the need for a new
paradigm — focusing on professionalism, and respect
for human rights and democracy — to be introduced in
the following decade.
The flaws he has that may affect his performance as
president stem more from personal traits, reinforced
by his military background.
Another of Susilo’s notable traits is his dogged
dedication to the concept of a unitary nation state.
Islam might be his prescribed faith, but his true
faith is the military’s ideals; its “commandments”,
which include safeguarding Pancasila and the
territorial integrity of the unitary republic, are
non-negotiable dogma for him.
That is not to say that Yudhoyono has the makings of
an ultra-nationalist. Far from it, his overseas
education has given him a broad-based view of the
On the surface, one could sum up Yudhoyono as having
the makings of, at the very worst, a benevolent
autocrat. But there is often a fine line between being
a strong ruler and a simple despot.
One should also note that in the last five years,
Yudhoyono’s qualities as a first-rate officer have put
him head and shoulders above his fellow cabinet
members. He was truly a primus inter pares in the
government. Few in his close circle can challenge him.
It will be interesting to see whether as president he
can find confidants to whom he is willing to delegate
authority and, more importantly, power, or whether he
will continue to micro-manage major issues as he has
tended to do thus far. The presence of Jusuf Kalla as
vice president could be a telling factor in this
Combined with a strong mandate in the election, such a
narcissistic environment could eventually create an
unhealthy climate in which the seeds of despotism can
thrive. Coupled with a sense of self-righteousness
born of chauvinistic nationalism, these are conditions
that could help create the kind of persona on which a
personality cult is built.
The writer is a staff writer for The Jakarta Post