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Jusuf Kalla has the common touch

By Duncan Graham - posted Friday, 14 July 2006

In a nation of paradoxes, this one’s a real head-scratcher:

Why is a former four star general turned politician best known for being slow and indecisive, while his deputy - a businessman - has a think-it, do-it image?

No soldier advances far in any army if he or she can’t make snap decisions in a crisis, while corporate czars have a reputation for caution - taking their time and checking all options before signing off on policy.


No problem if these two were small-time players in some backwater legislature, but the men in this story run the biggest show in South-East Asia.

Indonesia’s sixth president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) always looks happiest on the parade ground. His father was a soldier and he married into a military family. One of his sons has donned the khaki.

With that background most would expect the commander of a nation of around 240 million people and a similar number of political, social, economic and environmental problems to be Action Man.

Election analysts reckon Yudhoyono didn’t get 60 per cent of the popular vote in 2004 just because he sought to clean up a country corroded by corruption. Voters wanted the reforms to be run by a tough man at the top who was also a democrat.

His three predecessors (Habibie, Gus Dur and Megawati Sukarnoputri) had been ditherers, while the first two presidents (Sukarno and Suharto) had been no-nonsense heavyweights.

However there was one daunting problem: while Yudhoyono had the credentials his Democratic Party didn’t have the numbers. His handpicked running mate Jusuf Kalla was in a similar position.


Kalla was a politician and self-made entrepreneur with a reputation for straight dealing. He’d built a transport and industrial conglomerate in South Sulawesi and successfully moved his Kalla Group into Java.

Kalla had been kicked out of Golkar when he backed Yudhoyono. Golkar is the party founded by Suharto and which ran Indonesia for 32 years. After the 2004 election Golkar formed a loose “Nationhood Coalition” with former president Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) - creating a potentially formidable opposition.

But the smarter heads in politics rapidly realised that although Yudhoyono and Kalla could be trounced in the parliament, they had the people’s mandate for change - and the voters were in no mood to tolerate party poopers for the next five years.

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About the Author

Duncan Graham is a Perth journalist who now lives in Indonesia in winter and New Zealand in summer. He is the author of The People Next Door (University of Western Australia Press) and Doing Business Next Door (Wordstars). He blogs atIndonesia Now.

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