Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, center. (Antara Photo/Teresia May)

Johannes Nugroho: It's Time SBY Really Took a Backseat


SEPTEMBER 08, 2015

Amid worsening economic indicators for Indonesia last month, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono tweeted a series of “recommendations” for the current administration, in order to “avert a crisis.”

As a private citizen, Yudhoyono is no doubt constitutionally endowed with the right to free speech, and indeed in his capacity as chairman of the Democratic Party he may feel that he needs to have his take on national affairs. But the question remains whether it is ethical for him to do so.

As a former head of state and government, Yudhoyono is still addressed at state functions as the sixth president of the republic and as such he is morally bound to act within a certain code of conduct appropriate to his exalted station. The case for statesmanlike demeanor a term much taken in vain by many Indonesian politicians today  is even more compelling for an ex-president who served the two full terms allowed under the constitution, like Yudhoyono.

But there’s definitely something amiss with the way Yudhoyono charges in from time to time, armed with opinions (the economic tips he gave recently), rebuttals (when he denied his government had left debts with the International Monetary Fund) and even grievances (when he urged President Joko Widodo to desist from blaming the previous government). It’s possible that he isn’t yet comfortably settled into being an ex-president. Perhaps he is eager for a role of preeminence of some sort. However, the way he goes about it suggests a definite lack of finesse.

By comparison, former US president George W. Bush, once out of office, never made direct public statements advising or criticizing his successor Barack Obama, even though they both represented two different poles in American politics. If anything, former US presidents are usually discreet enough to conduct their own affairs in ways that don’t overlap with the policies of the sitting government.

President Bill Clinton is another example of a former president who has managed to build his own post-Oval-Office niche without trespassing into any of his successors’ domain. After he left office in 2001 he started the Clinton Foundation which, in its initial stage, aimed at helping young Americans establish their own business ventures in Harlem, New York City, where his wife Hillary was serving as senator.

The foundation proved to be a success, which subsequently emboldened Clinton to cast a wider net. However, as the Washington Post put it, “he wanted to stay out of domestic policy, so it didn’t look as though he was meddling in the domain of the president who had succeeded him. Or the senator he was married to.”

To be fair to Yudhoyono, however, it’s also worth noting that his successor, Joko, on several occasions implied the current government had “inherited” many economic problems. For someone known to be sensitive to criticisms, Yudhoyono may have seen it as a way to tarnish his legacy.

Nonetheless, his intemperate forays into the government’s sphere only serve to suggest that Yudhoyono is reluctant to take a backseat from politics even after 10 years as president. Such conclusion is inevitable since he never declined his own election in a contest in which he was the only contender  as chairman of the Democratic Party earlier this year. In so doing, he affirmed his own wish to take an active part in Indonesian politics.

Such Machiavellian maneuvering may also point to another purpose, beyond the possible post-power syndrome. Given that Yudhoyono himself won’t be able to nominate himself again for president under the present constitutional arrangement, his continued hold on the Democrats only makes sense if his immediate family members plan to run for public office in the future.

His own relatively plain-sailing years in power, supported by the Democratic faction in the House of Representatives, would have taught him the importance of commandeering a political party in Indonesian politics. If using the Democratic Party as powerbase for upcoming political ventures by members of his clan is truly in the offing, then nothing short of complete control will be necessary. Gone are the days of indirect influence, especially after the upheaval brought about by his erstwhile protege Anas Urbaningrum in 2013.

His younger son, Edhie Baskoro Yudhoyono, has been actively involved with the running of Democratic Party and served as its secretary general until recently. His eldest son, Agus Harimurti Yudhoyono, has so far chosen to serve in the army but may choose to enter politics later on. Yudhoyono himself decided to retire from the military in 2001 when he was appointed as minister by then-president Megawati Soekarnoputri.

One thing is certain: Yudhoyono strives hard to maintain popularity as well as political relevance after leaving office. He may have started with a genuine wish to stay out of domestic politics. His election as chairman of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) last year and talks of nomination as the next UN secretary general suggested a desire for an international stage.

If so, Yudhoyono should never have strayed from his path. By being seen to be blatantly meddling with his successor’s government, he is setting a bad precedent for Indonesia’s democracy. Let’s hope he still has sufficient statesmanship left in him to realize this.

Johannes Nugroho is a writer from Surabaya. He can be contacted at