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A question of leadership

Publication Date : 17-04-2012


When a prominent retired army commander criticised the government after it first unveiled plans to lower fuel subsidies, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s response was that the general’s remarks were inappropriate.

Yudhoyono retorted in the press that he thought his opponent was jealous after having lost the 2009 elections and this explained, in fact, why the errant general lambasted his administration.

Who exactly was acting inappropriately in this instance is a debatable one. But there is another, more interesting issue at hand that warrants closer inspection. For sure, there are economic arguments for raising fuel prices. There are alternatives that can substitute subsidies for long-term policy.

What Yudhoyono does not understand, however, is the logic of demand and supply curves and the world of efficiencies taught in the classroom are an entirely different, matter from how a leader can sell policies that require sacrifice from the public. On this score he fared miserably, for it seems that very few people were willing to follow him.

When the fuel-price proposal first failed to pass muster with the public and then massive street protests led to the government temporarily backing down, Yudhoyono put the blame for this staunch about-face on the politicians that didn’t show unswerving support inside the halls of the House of Representatives.

Since Yudhoyono first entered office in 2004, blaming others for failure has been one of his trademarks. Hopefully it will not be the legacy for which he is most remembered.

If Yudhoyono wants to lead the public with a better chance of success next time around, he should first ask himself why there were so many protests over the fuel-price policy.

It was not because, as he imagined, that some elite politicians were looking to play street politics and paid off demonstrators in a bid to topple him from power. Rather, it was because some very disgruntled Indonesians — the same people who have to toil every day just to make ends meet and therefore were the ones who had the most to lose from higher fuel prices -— believe public officials are interested solely in abusing their positions for selfish interests.

Why, then, could we ever think that voters would be willing to bow to anybody in high office-making grandiloquent statements that they should manage to survive on even less of their hard-earned money?

The bottom line is there has been more at play here than simple economics. What has been striking the chords of anger is a general sense of unfairness in how the elite governs the country. And the starkest example of this unfairness is the gross misapplication of justice in cases involving corruption.

When it comes to shady deals being made by powerful politicians, there is a widespread belief — probably for good reason — that the arms of the law will never lay its hands on the privileged few. Others, less privileged and committing less heinous crimes, have faced much harsher punishment by the judiciary.

As Yudhoyono sits in the palace and ponders why his popularity has hit an all-time low, he should think about how the scandals surrounding his political party have tainted the public’s perception of his presidency.

If his party had instead remained clean, there would have been a good chance that Indonesians would have been less uncompromising in their stance against Yudhoyono’s fuel-price policy. But if the president’s men remain above the law, then why should anybody outside the palace grounds grant them any legitimacy -- which, as many heads of state have learned the hard way, is the most precious of political commodities and the sine qua non (essential element) of leadership?

Yudhoyono has also failed to understand that if he is to succeed in leading his people, he must be able to move beyond visions of change and turn them into reality. Up until now, Yudhoyono has impressed
Indonesians and his peers abroad with the ability to articulate his ideas for progress.

Yet ideas alone do not win the hearts and minds of the people. Great leaders such as Mahathir, Fidel Ramos, Lee Kuan Yew, Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton were not only able to inspire and move their followers with words, but proved that they could deliver results. It is this type of leadership that is sorely lacking in the Yudhoyono administration.

More than seven years into his presidency, it is no surprise that Indonesians have come to heavily discount the president’s words.

Recovering any semblance of credibility with his erstwhile supporters will require him to start working hard to show tangible results on his past promises of a better future for Indonesians. Working toward that end, he would probably be well advised to start thinking more about his constituents’ welfare than trying to remove fuel subsidies.

The main lesson for Indonesians, I think, is simple yet profound: When it comes time for selecting Yudhoyono’s successor, they will have to consider whether the person they choose is not only a good speaker but also possesses the competence to provide the types of change they are looking for.

Good looks and eloquence are fine for winning popularity contests, and it might even be a prerequisite for having a chance of becoming a viable political candidate. But a true democracy consists of much more than just holding elections. It also means having a government that serves the people.

The writer is a former coordinating economic minister.


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