Musing over how the strangest of men can hold their nations in thrall (think Kim Il Jong, Papa Doc Duvalier, Hitler, Napoleon) it was inevitable that I should fall into contemplating the Indonesian political landscape. There is an old, tired Indonesian joke about how our first President was mad about women (Soekarno), the second mad about wealth (Soeharto), the third just plain mad (Habibie). Well, the road to democracy hasn’t really been that smooth since either.

Since then we have had the tragic Gus Dur (undone by his own hubris), a man who was brilliant in opposition but was not equipped to actually run a country. Then we had the completely ineffectual Megawati who came to her throne with a sense of dynastic entitlement.

And of late of course we have had Soesilo Bambang Yudono, better known by the acronym SBY. At times he would frustrate this particular fuming citizen with his seeming indecision and slowness to move. His rather strange cabinet left me wondering. Among others: a Coordinating Minister for Welfare whose legacy in the business world includes the infamous Sidoarjo mudflow (resulting from reportedly incompetent drilling procedures) which has destroyed the homes and lives of tens of thousands. Then there is a Health Minister whose portfolio seems to be more paranoid Islamic/chauvinist than scientific (one of her latest classic, controversial statements is her publicly voiced speculation that swine flu was deliberately engineered by ‘the West’ – this after all but accusing the US of engineering bird flu). Needless to say the country has been held hostage by the kind of political compromise that comes with coalitions and ends up infecting cabinets.

I once asked a friend who is a very savvy, behind-the-scenes political advisor how it is possible that a nation of 250 million people can’t come up with one brilliant leader and a decent cabinet. He looked at me deadpan, and said: “You don’t understand democracy. It’s not about who is best.”

Yet despite my early misgivings, I have to begrudgingly admit that SBY has actually moved Indonesia back from the brink to a more comfortable economic zone. Now he is testing the strength of his alliances by choosing a running mate other than their recommendations. One backer, PAN party boss Amien Rais made a contorted statement reiterating his support for SBY – but not for his VP candidate Boediono, ex-gov of the central bank. I am not so sure how that divided affection adds up at the ballots. In any case, if you look at the competition, any rational person would conclude it’s a no-brainer to go with SBY for his second and last term.

Our problem is that it is a no-brainer because there are no new fresh faces up there. Once again we have a succesion problem looming on the horizon.

Megawati hasn’t yet given up her obsession with her ‘birthright’ and has chosen another old face, Lieut. General (retired) Prabowo, as her running mate. Prabowo has displayed some pretty erratic and controversial behaviour during his military career, and his foray into politics really hasn’t been more fortunate.

“Sister” Mega stalled the nation’s reform after 32 years of dictatorship, and allowed the final implementation of special autonomy to Aceh – which basically sealed Syariah rule and led to many other regions in the country declaring syariah law in various degrees. She is now promising double digit economic growth (which has now been modified to the lowest double digit: 10). Backing her up, her VP candidate just happens to be an ex-son-in-law of Soeharto, and a special forces black-ops loose canon with a tarnished human rights record. Born into good fortune and amassing more (including 95 racehorses) during what was arguably a colorful (blood red perhaps) career, he now is selling himself as champion of the poor. What a team.

The other contender is Jusuf Kalla, current VP. A man of reasonable intelligence and business acumen, he is given to favoring Islamic thought over the secular. What has marred his recent political career is a series of pathetic hissy fits. Abandoning SBY to nourish his own presidential ambitions (OK, OK it was always his game plan) he has chosen Wiranto as his pal-for-the-palace. Retired General Wiranto has been dodging harsh international criticism for years over his role in East Timor’s bloodbath and the UN has point blank accused him of violatiing human rights. I am trying to imagine where he would officially visit in the world without ending up setting up a makeshift office in a Den Haag maximum security establishment. Today, according to the Jakarta Post, this team supposedly won over a large number of Islamic votes because their wives wore head scarves. Even no-brainers can lose votes to the brainless.

Where are the new faces? Somewhere suffocated by party politics in the mad mosaic of Indonesia’s coalition map? The big players like Golkar and PDI-P are desperate to hold on to their past power and arguable glory, and all kinds of deals have been done with a patchwork of startups. I guess my friend was right – it’s not necessarily about who is best.

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