To be or not to be?

VOTES 2004

Surveys have shown security czar Bambang Yudhoyono as one of the leading contenders for the presidency. But he is caught between a rock and a hard place. He tells Straits Times Indonesia bureau chief DERWIN PEREIRA the dilemma he is in and why he has decided to go for broke.

He shrugged.

Security czar Bambang Yudhoyono is pondering crucial options before him. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he faces an acute dilemma: to be or not to be a candidate.

Publicly, he has declared his ambitions to be president. He has thrown his hat in the ring with his rivals and stopped playing the Javanese game of pretending not to want what he covets most.

But as the dark horse in the presidential race, he stands to gain – or lose – everything by going for broke if he does not confront two hard realities.

For one, he is up against the most powerful forces in the game of electoral politics – Golkar and the Indonesian Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P), where a coalition is now looking increasingly possible.

He also needs to tread carefully between being a loyal minister to President Megawati Sukarnoputri and an aspiring politician eyeing her seat.

No wonder, the 53-year-old general is still vacillating.

‘Of course, the best case scenario for me is to be president,’ he says. ‘The second best is to be vice-president. I have to be realistic and bide my time. I don’t want my decision to be cast in stone.’

For him, the presidency is the prize. And he has the credentials for it.

Mr Bambang’s star shone from a very young age.

The son of a retired Javanese lieutenant, he graduated top of his 1973 military academy class with a record number of merit medals.

Three years later, he was one of the few sent to Fort Benning in the United States for airborne ranger training.

His military standing increased immeasurably when he married the daughter of Lieutenant-General Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, the special forces commander and confidante of former president Suharto, who played a key role in aborting the 1965 communist coup.

The classroom was clearly his forte. In 1991, he attended the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. That year he earned a master’s degree in management.

But he was no stranger to combat operations. He served two tours of duty in erstwhile East Timor early in his career.

In the early 1990s, he headed the United Nations’ military observers’ contingent in Bosnia before coming home to hold key command appointments in Jakarta and South Sumatra. He reached the peak of his military career in 1998, when he was appointed chief of territorial affairs.

But in 1999, the tug of war by rivals for power and influence in a new government under Mr Abdurrahman Wahid forced him to leave the military prematurely to take up the energy minister’s post reluctantly.

It marked his entry into politics. In less than a year, he was moved up to coordinating minister for security and politics. Months later, he was axed from this post for refusing to back the president’s emergency decree.

But he survived. He ran for the vice-presidential election in the national assembly in 2001 after Mr Abdurrahman’s ouster. He crashed out in the first round but found consolation in being co-opted into the Megawati administration as security czar again.

That brief turbulent period – together with his experience in government – taught him a few valuable lessons in politics.

For one, he learned about the need for confidence and zeal when pursuing a goal, in this instance the presidency.

‘Five years ago, I would have preferred to have been commander of the army,’ he says. ‘That was always my dream – a soldier. But now I have reached a stage where I realise that as president, I can do a lot more for Indonesia.’

In his baritone, he spells out his agenda for the country if he is sworn into power: democratisation, economic reconstruction, national reconciliation, and law and order.

Underlying this grand vision are the Pancasila state doctrine and preserving Indonesia’s territorial integrity. These are non-negotiable.

He explains: ‘We need to balance liberty with security. What is the point of having democracy if there is no stability?’

His ideological thinking lies between two of Indonesia’s former leaders – Sukarno and Suharto. Sukarno, he notes, had fire in the belly and instilled national pride. Suharto stood for precious order and stability.

The conservative streak can be traced to his military ideals. But he is no ultra-nationalist.

His overseas education gave him a broad view of the world and made him one of the leading reformers in the armed forces.

Indeed, despite his emotional attachment to the military, he is very much an outsider with the current top brass, who are less reform-minded.

For a long time, Mr Bambang refused to declare his ambition openly.

But last week, in an interview with the weekly magazine Tempo, he made clear: ‘The public may see me being careful or being in doubt. But actually I have no doubts about being a presidential candidate. I am firm about it.’

What brought about this volte-face?

His advisers forced him into it. They were concerned that he was losing political ground to others who had long declared their ambitions.

Explains a close associate: ‘By sitting on the fence, he is allowing his competitors to keep two steps ahead of him. He must make a more determined challenge and capitalise on his strengths.’

With his imposing six-foot frame and clean-cut good looks, the general is popular. His approval rating is high. Surveys over the last year have named him as one of the top two choices for the presidency.

He has a good track record as a top-notch military officer and Cabinet minister. Very few in the Megawati administration today can match him for intellect and ability.

He is also one of the most high-profile ministers in the government today. He is on TV almost every other day with headline news on terrorism, Aceh, Papua and Poso. He has become a voice of reason and authority.

Mr Bambang’s dilemma is one of loyalty. How can he oversell himself for the presidency without appearing to be disloyal to Ms Megawati while still serving in her Cabinet?

Indeed, he says this was one reason he did not take part in the Golkar convention. ‘It is just not right to challenge your own president,’ he says.

‘I have a good relationship with her now. But it could change if I step into politics opposing her.’

His cautious approach bore dividends even if his detractors saw it as a liability.

He was astute enough to recognise that jumping into the Golkar convention could have killed his chances. Some like Islamic scholar Nurcholish Madjid have crashed out ignominiously soon after entering the fray.

Others like retired general Wiranto are hanging by the thread, at the mercy of Golkar chairman Akbar Tandjung’s machinations. Strategically, his perceived ‘indecisiveness’ gave him greater room to manoeuvre. Making public his ambition has narrowed his options.

Ideologically, he says he is drawn to the PDI-P, Golkar or the Nation Awakening Party (PKB). His choice, however, is the PKB in which he is ‘maintaining a constructive engagement with the PKB’.

‘Realistically, I don’t have a chance with the PDI-P or Golkar as the No. 1,’ he says. ‘Both of them already have presidential contenders.’

He says the PKB, which sees him as its preferred candidate over others like Nadhlatul Ulama chairman Hasyim Muzadi, is appealing for other reasons. It is a Muslim-based party with liberal leanings. Mr Bambang, after all, sees himself as a Muslim nationalist.

Together with the newly established Democratic Party that is backing him, can the PKB win him the presidency?

Despite his popularity, he lacks a huge party base the likes of the PDI-P and Golkar. The PKB might offer him that base but it does not have the vast network or finances of the Big Two.

Mr Akbar’s exoneration last week is potentially damaging. If indeed there was a political deal between the palace and Golkar, it raises the possibility of a coalition between the two juggernauts.

The Big Two would almost certainly clinch the presidential election in the first round by combining their resources.

Under this scenario, there could be two options for him.

One is to go on a PKB ticket with Mr Hasyim as his deputy. The other is to be drafted into either Golkar or the PDI-P if they are fighting each other. But his fraying ambition by then would be limited to being vice-president.

His presidential declaration could haunt him because it restricts his options against coalition partners who would have otherwise considered him.

If anything, events over the last week – especially Mr Akbar’s acquittal – are now likely to moderate his public stance on the presidency. He will keep his cards closer to his chest and continue playing Hamlet until after the April legislative election.

To be or not to be: that is the question.


Realistic ambitions

Of course, the best-case scenario for me is to be president. The second best is to be vice-president. I have to be realistic and bide my time.’
– Mr Bambang

Going all the way

Five years ago, I would have preferred to have been commander of the army … But now … I realise that as president, I can do a lot more for Indonesia.’
– Mr Bambang

Liberty and stability

We need to balance liberty with security. What is the point of having democracy if there is no stability?’
– Mr Bambang

Firm on presidency

The public may see me being careful or being in doubt. But actually I have no doubts about being a presidential candidate. I am firm about it.’
– Mr Bambang

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