Graft Forces Indonesian President to Take Party Helm

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JAKARTA -- Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is the first directly elected president in Indonesian history. And as he entered the last 18 months of his second and final five-year term in office Monday, he was set to become the country's first-ever lame-duck leader.

But in the uncertain political atmosphere of Indonesia's young democracy, it has not quite worked out that way. Mr. Yudhoyono, by all appearances, was thrust back into the center of the country's political ring over the weekend, as he was named chairman of his governing Democratic Party by proclamation during an emergency congress in Bali, to replace a party leader felled by a corruption scandal.

Party members and analysts said Mr. Yudhoyono, a retired army general under whose leadership Indonesia has continued its steady democratic transition -- and today boasted one of the world's best-performing economies -- had little choice but to take the reins officially. Beset by multiple corruption scandals, the party was also facing a mid-April deadline to register candidates for legislative elections next year and would not have been able to do so without a chairman in place.

"President Yudhoyono doesn't want to be chairman of the party, but it's an emergency situation," said Ramadhan Pohan, an Indonesian lawmaker and deputy secretary general of the Democratic Party. "No one else can step in and do this. There is no Democratic Party without Yudhoyono."

That in itself may be a bigger problem. While Mr. Yudhoyono may merely be trying to salvage the political party that he and his wife founded in 2001, some analysts say he is only further cementing the tendency toward political cults of personality, which is the main downside to Indonesia's democratic era after decades of military-backed authoritarian rule. Each of Indonesia's main political parties is centered on one key leader, leaving little room for internal democratic debate, party platforms or even ideologies, beyond being "nationalist" or Islamic-based.

"They invest in figures, not the mechanisms of modern political parties, to resolve problems," said Philips J. Vermonte, head of the politics and international relations department at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Jakarta. Mr. Vermonte said that while it made sense for Mr. Yudhoyono to take over the chairmanship of his party, "I don't think it's ideal for the political system because it depends again on one popular figure."

The party congress on Bali, which was televised live nationally, was held to replace Anas Urbaningrum, who resigned as the Democrats' chairman in February after the independent Corruption Eradication Commission named him as a suspect in a huge scandal involving the construction of a national sports complex in West Java Province.

Divided by infighting ahead of the one-day congress Saturday, with Mr. Urbaningrum's supporters nearly mutinous and other party leaders plotting to become chairman and, presumably, improve their chances to become the Democrats' presidential candidate in July 2014, party leaders opted to bypass an open vote and put forward only Mr. Yudhoyono's name.

Party leaders said the president had grudgingly accepted but said he would not serve beyond the election cycle next year. He also appointed an executive chairman to handle his party's day-to-day business.

A string of corruption scandals dating back to 2010 has seen the Democrats' poll numbers drop into the single digits and has left the party without a viable presidential candidate from among its senior leadership, as Mr. Yudhoyono is barred by the Constitution from seeking a third term. Mr. Yudhoyono's task is not only to turn around his party's fortunes, but to protect his own legacy as a president who won two terms on a policy of zero tolerance for corruption in one of Asia's most graft-ridden nations.

"He had no option but to accept the leadership offer because if he doesn't, the Democratic Party will sink like the Titanic," said Burhanudin Muhtadi, senior researcher at the Indonesian Survey Institute. "I'm not sure if he can save it. But Yudhoyono is the only hope for the Democratic Party to recover."

It has been a steep fall from grace for the party, which won a leading 26 percent of the seats in Indonesia's 560-seat House of Representatives in April 2009, followed by Mr. Yudhoyono's landslide re-election that July.

The party's treasurer, Muhammad Nazaruddin, was sentenced to nearly five years in prison in 2012 for accepting money relating to construction contracts for the Ministry of Youth and Sports, while Andi Mallarangeng, the youth and sports minister and a Yudhoyono protégé, resigned last December after being named a suspect in the sports complex scandal.

In January, the Democrat lawmaker Angelina Sondakh, a former Miss Indonesia, was sentenced to as long as five years in prison for illegally facilitating construction contracts for the youth and sports and education ministries. Last month, Mr. Yudhoyono's youngest son, Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono, the Democrats' secretary-general, had to repeatedly deny that he received money in connection with the sports complex scandal after Mr. Urbaningrum implied as much during a television interview after resigning as party chairman.

Despite his party's scandals, Mr. Yudhoyono himself remains popular, with a job approval rating in the 50s, according to recent polls. There is hope within his party that the president can turn its fortunes around before the 2014 election season, partially because the anti-corruption commission has also recently made arrests and conducted raids on the offices of leaders of rival political parties, including the Golkar party and the Islamic-based Prosperous Justice Party.

While Mr. Yudhoyono successfully ran twice as an anti-corruption presidential candidate in 2004 and 2009, graft is unlikely to be an election-year issue this time around because the top four political parties have all had members thrown in prison. Governance, social and even economic issues tend not to resonate among Indonesia's electorate; voters tend to identify with political parties based on the personality of their top leader.

Election campaigns in Indonesia are more like outdoor parties with live music and celebrity hosts; Mr. Yudhoyono used to famously croon love songs to crowds during campaign stops.

Whatever his intent in accepting the chairmanship, analysts say Mr. Yudhoyono is only reinforcing the trend by leading his Democratic Party into an election season in which he is not even a candidate.

"This can create a precedent for the next parties in power after 2014 that it's O.K. if ministers and presidents continue to work as party leaders. It's not about whether the president or those in power perform well or not," said Mr. Vermonte, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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