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Indonesian Envoy Steps Down in Long-Shot Bid for President
The Washington Diplomat / January 2014

By Larry Luxner

Dino Patti Djalal loves his current job, but he’d love being president even more.

That’s why on Dec. 31, Djalal will officially resign as Indonesia’s ambassador to the United States and throw all his efforts into getting himself elected leader of the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

The ambassador’s unlikely quest began back in February, when Djalal said he received a call from the current head of state, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known by his initials, SBY), inviting him to compete in the ruling Democratic Party (PD) primary set for next April.

“I very much enjoy the world of diplomacy and could do this for another 15 years, but this is a historic moment for Indonesia, and I’ve always wanted to go into politics,” said Djalal, who’s spent 26 of his 48 years in the Foreign Service. “In August, after extensive consultation with my wife and parents, I decided to go for it. I have the right combination of age, experience and idealism to make a good leader for Indonesia.”

On Nov. 22, The Washington Diplomat interviewed Djalal for an hour and a half at the stately Indonesian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, where he’s served as ambassador for just over three years. (It’s the same embassy where Djalal, as a teenager in the early 1980s, got on-the-job training in his first official function — dishwasher — while his father, Hasjim Djalal, was deputy chief of mission.)

“I’m definitely not in this for the ego. I see this as a chance to serve on a higher level,” he told us. “Indonesia in 2014 will reach a historic milestone. We will end the present era under SBY, and a new generation of leaders will take the baton.”

The July 2014 race will mark the third direct presidential election since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998; Indonesia’s constitution bars Yudhoyono from running a third time.

Yet for all his enthusiasm, Djalal — known on Embassy Row for his easygoing charm and his beautiful wife Rosa — faces a very hard road ahead.

For starters, only 7.1 percent of respondents in a May 2013 poll conducted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said they’d vote for Djalal’s party in legislative elections to be held next April. That’s down from 21 percent in 2009, when Yudhoyono won a second five-year term as president.

A more recent CSIS report poll conducted from Nov. 13 to Nov. 20 on the presidential race didn’t even mention Djalal, even though he’s one of the 11 declared candidates for the PD ticket.

Much of that report focused instead on Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, who was chosen by 34.7 percent of respondents, followed by Prabowo Subianto (10.7 percent) and Aburizal Bakrie (9 percent).

Widodo, the 52-year-old governor of Jakarta known by his nickname Jokowi, has generated the most excitement among voters, edging out Prabowo, a retired general who has a strong following among the rural poor but has been associated with the human rights abuses of the Suharto regime.

Jokowi “has a charismatic, pavement-pounding style that is new to Indonesian politics,” said CSIS researchers Gregory Poling and Blake Day. “As mayor of Surakarta, he proved an effective, pragmatic and, most importantly, clean leader. Unsurprisingly, Jokowi has dominated presidential opinion polls for months, leading the second-place Prabowo by double digits. And he is not even officially running yet.” (Jokowi must also secure the approval of his party’s leader before pursuing the nomination.)

“He’s a good man and we like each other,” Djalal said of Jokowi. “We are alike in the sense that we are leaders driven by idealism, and we’re solution-oriented.”

Many analysts agree that the main reason Djalal’s Democratic Party is faring so poorly in the polls is the rising incidence of corruption in Indonesia, despite the president’s widely publicized efforts to fight it.

Under Yudhoyono, the young democracy survived the 2008 financial crash relatively unscathed and gross domestic product has expanded by a healthy 6 percent clip over the last three years. Yet economists say rampant corruption is holding the country back.

Transparency International says Indonesia was viewed as more corrupt in 2012 than a year earlier, dropping from 100th to 118th place in its annual Corruption Perceptions Index. That means respondents say Indonesia is even more corrupt than Albania, Niger and the Philippines, and only marginally better than Belarus, Mauritania and Vietnam.

According to Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, an overwhelming majority of Indonesians described the police, legislature, judiciary, political parties, public officials and civil servants as corrupt. In addition, more than a third of Indonesians reported that they or someone in their household had paid a bribe in the last 12 months.

Djalal readily concedes that graft, bribery and political favoritism constitute some of the biggest problems in Indonesia — whose population of 250 million makes it the world’s fourth-most populous country after China, India and the United States and the third-largest democracy after the United States and India.

“There are too many old faces and too many corruption scandals. The credibility of politicians in Indonesia is very low, below 10 percent,” the ambassador said. “Parliament has 600 members, and there are corruption cases almost every day. Of all occupations, Indonesians trust politicians the least. That gives me an opportunity. I’m a fresh face, and I’m not tainted by corruption.”

But his party is. Despite the establishment in 2002 of the Corruption Eradication Commission (known as the KPK), and Yudhoyono’s willingness to have his own son’s father-in-law — a PD member and former central bank governor — arrested and sentenced to four and a half years in prison for embezzlement, the perception is that the president has grown soft on graft.

On Oct. 2, the KPK detained a sobbing Akil Mochtar, who as chief justice of the constitutional court was Indonesia’s top anti-corruption official. The commission also seized $590,000 in cash, which it said was a bribe to rig a court ruling over a disputed district election. The arrest of Mochtar — who once said those convicted of corruption should have their fingers amputated — has infuriated ordinary Indonesians fed up with dishonesty at the highest levels of government.

Yudhoyono’s “inability to groom a suitable successor and more generally his failure to build a sound Democratic Party around him have been his key failures as president,” political analyst Kevin O’Rourke said in a recent interview with Reuters. “The consequence of that has clearly been poor performance in cabinet and parliament.”

Djalal, the first Indonesian diplomat ever to run for president, hopes to lift his party’s sinking numbers in the polls. Since September, he’s returned home for two weeks of every month, hitting the campaign trail with his wife — a dentist who was recently named on Washingtonian magazine’s “Style Setters” list — and handing out a 192-page booklet filled with campaign slogans, inspirational quotes and occasional one-liners (i.e., “Hello, my name is Ambassador Dino Djalal of Indonesia. I used to be a frog until Rosa kissed me.”).

“I have a good vision, a good product to sell,” he told us. “My challenge now is how to convey this message to as many people in Indonesia as possible. I have found that in the last few weeks of campaigning, people are receptive to my message.”

That message, Nasionalisme Unggul, is loosely translated as “enlightened nationalism.” The basic idea, Djalal says, is that while Indonesia is in a good place, it can be even better. “From good to great, we need a tipping point,” he said. “That requires the right mindset, and it’s called winning nationalism, as opposed to narrow nationalism, ultra-nationalism or exclusive nationalism.”

But before competing against Jokowi, Prabowo or any of the other frontrunners in the election, Djalal must first clinch his own party’s nomination.

In Indonesia, candidates are chosen by the party leader, along with a committee made up entirely of non-party members to find outside contenders. Campaigning takes place until the end of April, at which time surveys are held in the country’s 10 biggest cities. The winner will be named after parliamentary elections and will be based on electability, as determined by three polling agencies. Whoever is chosen as the party’s nominee then goes on to the presidential contest.

Other leading candidates for the PD nomination include the recently retired head of the army, Pramono Edhie Wibowo, who also happens to be the president’s brother-in-law; Dahlan Iskan, Indonesia’s minister for state-owned enterprises and a media mogul; and Gita Wirjawan, the country’s U.S.-educated minister of trade.

“What encourages me about Indonesian politics is that you can go from being a nobody to a somebody in a matter of months,” Djalal said, offering Jokowi as a perfect example. “One month before the election [for governor of Jakarta in 2012], nobody knew who he was. But he campaigned very aggressively and won.”

The ambassador’s 180,000 Twitter followers should also serve him well in his presidential quest. According to the Asia Society, of the projected 187 million eligible voters in Indonesia’s 2014 elections, over a third will be first-time voters between the ages of 16 and 20 — an influential bloc of young people who are increasingly connected to the internet and social media, and demanding transparency. (Jokowi, before his upset victory in the Jakarta governor’s race, used his social media presence to reach millions of young voters.)

Djalal says he plans to use grassroots support to build up his campaign as well. “I have hundreds of volunteers on my team working for free. I found them through Twitter and they signed up,” he said, estimating he’ll need at least $1 million in contributions. “Once the country hears my vision, funds will come. To win the primaries, all I need is to focus on the 10 biggest cities and talk to the media every day.”

Talking has never been a problem for the media-savvy Djalal, who’s written five books including a bestseller on leadership that later became a TV show. A former presidential speechwriter and spokesman, Djalal brought a youthful energy — and creativity — to Washington, D.C.

In addition to shoring up Indonesia’s political and economic ties with the United States, he instituted a number of clever initiatives to showcase Indonesian culture, including the world’s longest angklung ensemble on the National Mall (angklung is a traditional musical instrument made of bamboo) and the first foreign competition to challenge fashion designers and graphic artists to design an American-style Indonesian batik (he’s even moon-walked for D.C. school students).

“I’ve served my country well in Washington, representing the Indonesian people and fighting for them. At the end of my tenure, I have contributed to making America even more pro-Indonesia than before,” Djalal told The Diplomat.

“In the last three months, I’ve been going home a lot to campaign, and I’m always introduced as Indonesia’s ambassador to the United States, because that’s my job. I’ve been able to draw large crowds. They respect that. They also respect President Obama,” he said (Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia). “People want to know that the international community is comfortable with me, and that I have international experience. But this will be a totally domestic affair. The Indonesian people care about jobs, health and education. Jobs will be a key issue. The price of food will also be important. So will religious freedom and tolerance.”

Djalal said another urgent long-term challenge is urban decay.

“For generations, our development philosophy has always been about rural poverty, and it should be that way,” he explained. “But in our generation, 70 percent of Indonesians will live in cities, and we will have a very large middle class that will soon represent 50 percent of the population. The fact is, people living in cities now have more money but are not happier. They’re stressed out. The quality of life is decreasing.”

Jakarta, the capital, is home to 9.7 million people, and Java, which is smaller than Alabama, contains more inhabitants than the rest of Indonesia’s 17,508 islands combined.

“There have been systematic efforts to move people, but Java is still the most densely populated island in Indonesia, so creating livable green cities is crucial for Indonesia,” Djalal said.

Another problem is that Indonesia’s economy ranks 17th in size, way behind less-populated countries such as Turkey, Mexico and Brazil. There’s no reason Indonesia can’t be among the world’s top 10 economies by 2030, and among the top five by 2040, the ambassador insists.

“We’ve been very insecure about our national identity as a multiethnic nation. But it’s not enough for Indonesia to be independent or sovereign. In the 21st century, you need excellence for the country to move forward. You need to be competitive and connected to the world,” Djalal said.

“I define excellence in terms of achievements. For example, Indonesia has huge geothermal energy potential, but there’s only one geothermal facility in Indonesia. In that sense, our achievement is way below our potential,” he lamented. “It’s the same with tourism. Indonesia is the most beautiful country in Southeast Asia, but we get only 7 million tourists a year. We’re an archipelago, but we are not a maritime nation.”

On the other hand, Indonesia ranks 38th on the World Economic Forum’s 2013-14 Global Competitiveness Index, up from 50th place a year ago — right behind Thailand and just ahead of Azerbaijan — and its annual per-capita income has climbed to nearly $5,000 in 2012, according to the World Bank.

“When SBY took over, it was $1,100. He tripled it in nine years,” Djalal pointed out. “By the time he steps down, it will be four times as much.”

According to the U.S. Trade Representative Office, U.S. foreign direct investment in Indonesia was $11.6 billion in 2011. Major U.S. corporate investors in Indonesia include ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and mining giant Freeport-McMoRan.

“I’m glad that during my time, Indonesia has been more on the radar screen of Washington and the U.S. business community,” said Djalal, warning nonetheless that “it’s very important for the United States to stay neutral in Indonesia’s elections, and to avoid any perception or misperception that it is interfering in the electoral process.”

Djalal said he was part of the team that formulated Indonesia’s foreign policy doctrine, which is called “A Million Friends and Zero Enemies.”

“That means we must turn every adversary into a friend, and every friend into closer friends and even partners,” he said. “Before, the U.S. and Indonesia were just friends, and it was all about security and counterterrorism. But in 2010, we formed a comprehensive partnership. Basically, that means the U.S. and Indonesia recognize that this is a strategic relationship. Now, it is broad-based and forward-looking.”

The highlight of Djalal’s U.S. posting was President Obama’s November 2011 visit to Bali, which hosted the 19th ASEAN Summit as well as the Sixth East Asia Summit. Obama, whom Djalal has met at least half a dozen times, was received ecstatically by the Indonesian people, who almost claim him as one of their own. After all, Obama spent much of the late ’60s attending elementary school in the Jakarta suburb of Menteng.

Djalal said that growing up the son of an ambassador opened him up to other perspectives and encouraged him to aim high. “My father trained me to be a diplomat, so I get on very easily with other cultures,” he told The Diplomat in the November 2011 cover profile “Indonesia’s Ambassador Embodies Ambitions of His Emerging Nation.”

Even so, Djalal’s diplomatic skills, his friendship with Obama and his years of experience on the world stage may not be enough to propel him to the presidency. (It may, though, boost his domestic profile and land him a top government job down the line.) The fact that he’s spent the last three years outside of Indonesia will likely work against him — even as the campaign itself subjects the Djalal family to public scrutiny as never before.

“You have to be thick-skinned to be a politician these days,” he said. “It requires mental toughness and a lot of discipline. I need to brace myself for what comes ahead.”

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