Can Yudhoyono keep his Cabinet united?


Compromise team full of conflicting interests.

INDONESIA’S new President, Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has dubbed his ministerial line up the United Cabinet.

It is anything but. The 36-member team of politicians, retired generals, professionals and technocrats is a mirage of compromises and appeasement of conflicting interests.

Sceptics might accuse the former general of taking a leaf out of the books of the last three leaders since Suharto’s fall in 1998 – all of whom caved in to incessant pressure and produced less-than-ideal Cabinets.

But if politics is the art of the possible, Dr Yudhoyono might just have passed his first test in the dictates of realpolitik.

Of course, a technocratic leadership would have been far more appealing. It would have been difficult, however, to ignore the Muslim-based legislators and loyalists who backed his rise to power. They could have emerged as thorns in his side for the next five years.

His dilemma now is this: Having cut deals to make everyone happy, can his Cabinet do a much better job than its predecessors?

The litmus test lies in the issues of economics, security and fighting corruption.

Indonesia’s financial markets weakened yesterday on concern over his choices for the key economic portfolios, with analysts predicting it will react more strongly once programmes are outlined.

His appointment of business tycoon Aburizal Bakrie of the powerful Bakrie conglomerate as top economics minister may concern some investors.

The 58-year-old businessman reportedly has a poor record of repaying debts to international lenders that he incurred during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.

The finance portfolio went to US-trained economist Jusuf Anwar, who was previously a top bureaucrat at the Finance Ministry and went on to serve in the Asian Development Bank.

Dr Sri Mulyani Indrawati, a University of Indonesia economist currently serving with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), was named chairman of the National Development Planning Board.

Another economist, Dr Mari Pangestu, a former executive director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think-tank, is trade minister.

With cracks emerging in his fragile alliance that included two Muslim-based parties – the Crescent Star Party and Prosperous Justice Party – the President was forced to reconsider some of the names initially slated for the economic posts.

Dr Sri Mulyani, for example, was originally to have been Finance Minister, but she lost out after nationalist hackles were raised over her IMF links.

Opposition was also raised to Mr Aburizal’s appointment, given his business track record. Dr Yudhoyono might have been game for a compromise, but there was a limit. He stuck to his choice of the businessman amid an 11th-hour frenzy by politicians to propose others.

Observer Arbi Sanit of the University of Indonesia said: ‘The team looks nice on paper. But being pro-business or pro-market in ideological orientation means nothing if they cannot work together.

‘The compromise has brought together different people. On the one hand, you have nationalists and populists. Then there are the pro-IMF types. There will be periodic tension.

‘How do you expect them to be effective?’

The first major test of their working relationship will be the combustible issue of fuel subsidies.

Some of the ministers are bound to push for higher subsidies, while those toeing the IMF line might prefer price increases.

If they can resolve their differences over such a sensitive issue, then there are grounds for optimism.

If not, it will be a harbinger of things to expect in the long run, where economic policy-making falls prey to political infighting.

There is likely to be a broader consensus on security matters.

Retired admiral A.S. Widodo, who has been appointed security czar, has had a close working relationship with Dr Yudhoyono.

As a former military commander under the Abdurrahman Wahid regime, Dr Yudhoyono worked under him as a three-star general in charge of territorial affairs.

Compared to the Megawati administration, better coordination is expected in the intelligence and security community, with Mr Widodo being given the authority to deal with relevant agencies.

Mr Widodo also enjoys good ties with another general, Mr Muhammad Ma’aruf, who was appointed interior minister, and civilian Juwono Sudarsono who takes up the defence post.

Less infighting will only allow the government to be more focused in the battle against terrorism and dealing with separatist conflicts in Aceh and Papua.

Like security, appointments in the legal sector appear to have won plaudits.

Both Attorney-General Abdul Rahman Saleh and Justice Minister Hamid Awaluddin will be in charge of reforming the country’s shaky and corruption-tainted legal system, seen as a deterrent to foreign investors.

Mr Arbi said that the two appointees were known to be ‘clean and honest’.

The issue is how far will they be given the power, authority and full trust by the President to take action against corruptors.

Graft is endemic in Indonesia, but observers believe Dr Yudhoyono, who has declared his determination to lead the war on corruption, will make some headway.

Like security issues, there could be a clearer consensus among ministers-in-charge on how to address the problem.

But beyond the technocrats and professionals lies the larger unknown of how party zealots in his government will shape discourse.

The crucial factor in the end is the President.

He might have demonstrated the political acumen to bring them together, but will he offer the leadership to keep the Cabinet united?

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