Tom McCawley is a Jakarta-based journalist and analyst.
Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono must look back nostalgically on his landslide re-election in 2009. Voters rewarded his promises to fight corruption and create jobs with a 60% landslide victory in a direct election. He was feted abroad, with bold pledges to catch and punish terrorists winning him allies in Canberra and Washington.
In the last year, however, Yudhoyono's star has faded on the realities of multi-party politics and governing the world's fourth most populous country. Yudhoyono has struggled to manage both a rebellion within his ruling coalition and a series of internal corruption scandals that have damaged his own popularity and his party's chances of winning reelection. The polls predict the woes of Yudhoyono and his Democrat Party could clear the way for an election victory for rivals in the next parliamentary and presidential polls in 2014.
The most recent bad news came in late March when a cabinet ally defied the Government and voted against a controversial plan to slash subsidies and raise fuel prices by 33%. The Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the largest Islamist party in the 560-seat parliament, sided with the opposition to vote against the fuel price hike.
Indonesia has some of Asia's lowest fuel prices and the subsidy bill is forecast to rise to between 15-20% of the budget this year, draining funds from education, health and infrastructure. Yudhoyono's aides claim the PKS's defiance broke the coalition deal made in 2009. Building support for unpopular legislation was a major reason for forming the coalition in the first place.
In a private speech to his party, leaked last week, Yudhoyono railed against the PKS and the opposition, claiming they were trying to destroy the Government. 'Basically they expect the government to collapse ASAP,' he told Democrat leaders in a meeting on 1 April.
Despite the outburst, Yudhoyono has prevaricated over whether or not to eject the PKS from the ruling coalition. Speculation over whether Yudhoyono would fire the three serving PKS ministers has dominated the media in the last week. His hesitancy has added weight to frequent criticisms of the President: that is he timid and in spite of his military background cannot take fast decisions.
Yudhoyono and the Democrat Party's standing had already been falling over the past year, opinion polls say, on the back of internal corruption scandals and a sense of public disappointment over failed reforms.
The Democrats' former treasurer and fund-raiser Muhammad Nazaruddin has been on trial since late last year for siphoning funds earmarked for the South East Asian games. Nazaruddin has vowed not to go down alone. His court revelations have implicated senior members of the President's inner circle, including Sports Minister Andi Mallarangeng and Party Chairman Abas Urbaningrum. Both had been named as possible presidential candidates for 2014. Now it is unlikely either will be able to run. Yudhoyono has not been personally implicated and currently only serves as party 'patron'. He has vowed not to intervene and to let the law run its course.
Voters have taken notice, according to survey organisations. A flurry of polls have concurred that Yudhoyono's personal popularity – and that of the Democrat Party – was falling. The widely cited LSI reported Yudhoyono's personal popularity had fallen from 63.1% in January 2010 to 46.2% in October last year. LSI reported in February that the Democrats had fallen to a 13.7% approval rating from 20.5% a year earlier. Voters said they would prefer former ruling party Golkar, followed by the PDI-P, over the Democrats. Researcher Barkah Pattimayu said a range of factors, including the Nazaruddin scandal, had driven down the Democrats' approval rating.
The next elections are two years away and Yudhoyono cannot constitutionally serve another term. It has certainly been a stressful job. But Yudhoyono has found an outlet in his hobby of singing and guitar playing, releasing three albums in his tenure so far. 'In my spare time from running the people's mandate as a president, I like to express my feelings into works of art,' he says on the album cover of 'I'm Certain I'll Get There' (2010). The album contains songs about love, friendship, and school holidays. Sports Minister Andi Mallarangeng, who testified in Nazaruddin's corruption trial, sang back-up for Yudhoyono in his anthem to the environment, 'Save the Planet', at an international meeting in Oslo.
The ups and downs of politics will certainly give Yudhoyono plenty to sing about in his post-political career.
Photo by Flickr user World Economic Forum.