International Herald Tribune
A cautious path through political jungles
JAKARTA Two years after becoming Indonesia's first directly elected president, the typical opinion of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is summed up thus: right road, wrong speed.

Some suggest that the former general acts more like an academic, ever weighing policy options, than as commander of the government machinery. But if slow speed is frustrating, it could turn out to be surer.

Back in the last days of Suharto, the time of the Asian crisis and the East Timor mess, there were widespread predictions - mostly by foreigners - that a country of 220 million, of diverse religions and ethnic groups spread across several time zones, would fall apart.

So far it has not. Indeed, the strength of this hard- to-define identity is reflected in a very low rate of permanent emigration.

Nonetheless, assessments of presidential achievement should start with a consideration of how a president's policies fit with his or her perceptions of how best to hold the country together.

The great achievement of Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, was the imposition of a national language - Malay - which was not even the most widely spoken, but a regional lingua franca. His eventual downfall was due in part to placing nationalist rhetoric ahead of practical issues, like the economy.

For Suharto, the army and bureaucracy were the means for implementing a fierce centralization, which was effective economically but spurred problems in Aceh and elsewhere on the periphery.

His brief successor, President B.J. Habibie, helped preserve the nation by cutting the East Timor knot. The next president, Wahid, was an incompetent administrator but as a Muslim championed tolerance between and within religions, brought the Chinese closer into the national fold and began a process of decentralization to assuage regional discontents. Next in line, President Megawati Sukarnoputri did little but cling to the secular mantras of her father, Sukarno.

And now Yudhoyono. His willingness to do a deal on Aceh, to the consternation of nationalist and military forces, might not have been possible without the tsunami, but it was still a singular achievement.

Yudhoyono has continued to demonstrate that he believes in de- centralization as a principle. Indeed, critics fear that decentralization has gone too far.

Complaints now focus on his alleged failure to stop Islamists from using decentralized local powers to impose dress and conduct rules. He is also criticized for failing to shield investors, particularly in natural resources, from rapacious local governments.

Yudhoyono is credited with a serious attempt to clean up the central organs of government, a task which will need at least a decade of determination. Indeed, delays to badly needed power and infrastructure projects are now often blamed on bureaucratic fear of graft investigations.

But at the local level, there is little that the center can now do about corruption. There are fears too that emphasis on the rights of the locally born - the "asli," or sons of the soil - is creating a form of tribalism.

Yet decentralization, for all its faults, has brought about a redistribution of income as well as power away from Jakarta. Jakarta now accounts for only 50 percent of nationwide bank deposits, compared with 70 percent a few years ago.

The redistribution has been helped by the commodity price bonanza of the past two years. But its continuation is also in danger now from a revived nationalist hostility to foreign ownership.

Here, Yudhoyono is caught. His policies are in theory more favorable to foreign investments than ever before.

But in practice, the influences of deep-seated economic nationalism, plus the demands of decentralization, have left mining laws and control of logging uncertain, and have kept progress on oil development slow.

Frustration at Yudhoyono's perceived unwillingness to use his executive authority to the full is still secondary to his reputation for honesty and his success in quietly improving Indonesia's standing in the world, especially with China and the United States. He will be hard to beat in 2009.

Nonetheless, at some point he may have to stamp his view of how to keep Indonesia intact and democratic while pushing economic and social change.

Constant balancing of forces is necessary, but not sufficient.